The constant drone about preparing for an attack using WMDs was temporarily halted after the attacks in Mumbai. Nearly 200 were killed by attackers armed only with rifles and handguns. It also highlighted the vulnerability of cities to small, highly mobile groups attacking open public areas. Now a demonstration highlights another misconception of the WMD scenario-based planners; you don’t need a weapon to create havoc. Case in point, more than 50 members of the group Plane Stupid chained themselves together just yards from the runway at London Stansted Airport. The protestors were demonstrating against a second runway at the airport. The protestors, mainly students under 25, used bolt cutters to breach the security fence. It took police over 5 hours after the students breached the security fence to finally cut the protestors free and restore operations to the airport. Thousands of passengers were stranded and, needless to say, wickedly pissed about missing their flights. Police also had to respond to the terminals to try and maintain peace and order as the passengers became quite unruly.
The protestors highlight that a simple plan that is well executed still can defeat all of the high-tech security systems at airports. They didn’t use any weapons but were able to bring the airport to a standstill. Airport police were unable apparently to stop the students from breeching the fence and then chaining themselves. The students weren’t particularly stealthy either; they arrived in an old fire engine! 'We do not run a fortress, we run an airport. Security staff and police intercepted the protesters and no-one got on to the runway,' a spokesman said. True enough but how could a group of students approach the perimeter of an airport in an old fire engine at 3:30 in the morning and not attract a security team?
The success of the Plane Stupid groups causes me to think we will see copycat protests at other airports. The majority of US airports have fairly large security perimeters; it would be difficult to intercept a group breaching one of the fence lines. Removing a number of protestors who chain themselves to fence lines or other permanent structures near active runways could really cause headaches for airport police.
The incident at Stansted should serve as a reminder that it isn’t always about dirty bombs and biological agents. It isn’t even about small teams of highly trained operatives with rifles. It is about causing disruption and chaos to our normal way of going about our lives. President-elect Obama and his administration will really have to create something more fluid and flexible to deal with asymmetrical threats. Whether they be terrorists or protestors, active groups are only limited by their imagination as to how best get their group and its agenda to be front page news.