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05 September 2011

Preventing the Next 9/11

International Herald Tribune: Opinion Editorial article by RONALD K. NOBLE


As we approach the 10th anniversary of the murder of thousands of citizens from more than 90 countries, I keep asking myself whether we are finally safe from the global terror threat.

Since those shocking attacks of 9/11, the death of Osama bin Laden, the elimination of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the concentrated international pressure on Al Qaeda have reshaped the nature of the threat confronting us.

We’ve seen terror attempts foiled by a combination of heightened security and awareness, improved intelligence gathering, robust enforcement by police and prosecutors, quick actions by an observant public and sheer luck: the “Detroit Christmas plot,” the “shoe bomber,” the Times Square bomber.

Yet we’ve also seen appalling carnage in Bali, Casablanca, Kampala, London, Madrid, Moscow and Mumbai and throughout Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Tragically, this list is far from exhaustive.

In my official visits to 150 countries, I have witnessed first-hand the transformation from the post-9/11 single-minded focus by governments and law enforcement on Al Qaeda and foreign-born terrorists, to today’s concerns about foreign criminals generally, and cybercrime and security more specifically.

The question as we look forward, therefore, is how can we protect our countries from Al Qaeda’s remaining elements and from other emerging serious criminal threats on the horizon?

What has become clear to me is that unprecedented levels of physical and virtual mobility are both shaping and threatening our security landscape. With more people traveling by air than ever before — one billion international air arrivals last year with national and international air passenger figures estimated to reach around three billion by 2014 — I see the systematic screening of the passports and names of those crossing our borders as a top priority.

Citizens now submitted to stringent physical security checks in airports worldwide would be incredulous to learn that 10 years after 9/11, authorities today still allow one-out-of-two international airline passengers to cross their borders without checking whether they are carrying stolen or lost travel documents.

Yet all the evidence shows us that terrorists exploit travel to the fullest, often attempting to conceal their identity and their past by using aliases and fraudulent travel documents.

This global failure to properly screen travelers remains a clear security gap, all the more deplorable when the information and technology are readily available. Currently, less than a quarter of countries perform systematic passport checks against Interpol’s database, with details of 30 million stolen or lost travel documents. This failure puts lives at risk.

But preventing dangerous individuals from crossing borders at airports is only half the challenge. At a time when global migration is reaching record levels — there were an estimated 214 million migrants in 2010 — I see a need for migrants to be provided biometric e-identity documents that can be quickly verified against Interpol’s databases by any country, anytime and anywhere. Verification prior to the issuance of a work or residence permit would facilitate the efficient movement of migrants while enhancing the security of countries.

Virtual mobility also throws up its own security challenges. In 2000, less than 400 million individuals were connected to the Internet; an estimated 2.5 billion people will be able to access the net by 2015.

Extensive use of the Internet and freely accessible email accounts allowed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, to communicate quickly and effectively with co-conspirators.

A decade later, we see the same power targeting new generations to radicalize and spawn “lone wolf” terrorists. The trial in Germany of a young man who blamed online jihadist propaganda for the double murder he committed is just one recent example.

I believe that the Internet has replaced Afghanistan as the terrorist training ground, and this should concern us the most.

Cyberspace can be both a means for, and a target of terrorism and crime, undermining the critical infrastructure of governments and businesses. Yet until now there has been no meaningful effort to prepare countries to tackle this global threat in the future.

This is why Interpol’s 188 member countries unanimously approved the creation in Singapore of a global complex to better prepare the world to fight cybercrime and enhance cybersecurity.

So as we honor the memories of those who perished 10 years ago, it is time to ask ourselves if we have done all that we can to prevent another 9/11 or other serious attack. A great deal has been done to make us all safer, but far too little to make sure that we are safe from the global terror and criminal threat.

If we act today, in 10 years’ time, we may not just be catching up after the latest attack, we may have prevented it.

Ronald K. Noble is Secretary General of INTERPOL.