10 years on: Air Travel is Safer
By Dr James Ferryman, School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading
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The tragic events of 9/11 acted as a catalyst for the worldwide scientific community to research technologies which could aid in preventing similar attacks in the future. Since then, the University of Reading and the work of Dr James Ferryman in the School of Systems Engineering have been at the forefront of aviation security efforts addressing risks both on the ground and in the air.
On the ground, efforts have concentrated on automatic understanding of events and passenger behaviour within airport terminals. The research, in partnership with BAE Systems, focuses on the robust detection of events or actions from CCTV images which may, in isolation, not be considered significant. However, when further detections are analysed using a threat management system, potential threats can be established in real time.
Based on this work, the University were finalists in the recent Home Office INSTINCT Technology Demonstrator 2 on Aviation Security.
The second main development is behavioural analysis for on-board threat detection. The system, which was designed and developed in partnership with Airbus and companies including Thales and BAE Systems, represents the last line of defence. Assuming terrorists have actually boarded the plane, the system is able to continuously monitor passengers and activities during flight, corroborating evidence from a number of sources and informing crew immediately if a threat occurs.
While the systems above can be considered disparate to some extent, current work is concerned with linking these technologies together. Through improvements in joined-up monitoring at all stages of the aviation security process, the world has certainly become a safer place since 9/11.
10 Years On: The Continued Search for Al-Qaeda
By Dr Christina Hellmich, School of Politics, Economics and International Relations, University of Reading
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As details emerged about the death of Osama bin Laden in May, much of the ensuing debate was based on the US administration’s claim that bin Laden was the leader of the most dangerous terrorist organisation to date, effectively planning attacks from his compound in Abbottabad.
True or not, this assertion serves as a reminder that the War on Terror is founded upon two key assumptions: that it is somehow clear what terrorism is and that al-Qaeda is a tightly structured organisation with a single leader on top. While these assumptions continue to offer a convincing narrative in terms of establishing the legitimacy of actions taken; neither assertion is as clear and unqualified as the rhetoric would suggest.
First, there is no consensus as to what terrorism is, although certain qualities are generally agreed upon. Yet the Western public’s justified sense of outrage over the casualties of 9/11 might well have been tempered had bin Laden been caught alive and tried in a court of law. In such a setting Western democracies would, for once, have been unable to avoid engaging with the other side’s rationale that questions the common-sense’ view that the casualties of 9/11 were an atrocity while, for example, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis could be seen as acceptable collateral damage. In doing so, al-Qaeda and terrorism firmly remain the proverbial disease in need of cure rather than being viewed as an inherently political problem regarding the legitimate use of violence in the international system.
Secondly, the US insistence on the internal cohesion and hierarchical leadership of al-Qaeda runs counter to a growing consensus amongst researchers that al-Qaeda has changed into a more decentralised, perhaps even leaderless group. It is, in fact, not at all clear if the notion of a tightly-structured terrorist organisation was ever an accurate description in the first place. After all, the very notion of al-Qaeda as a global terrorist organisation was born out of the need to meet the legal requirements to try bin Laden in absentia in response to the US embassy bombings in 1998. Thise was born out of the belief, or indeed fear, that something bigger was out there, constructed from what several analysts regard as questionable evidence.
On the other hand, the US claim appears to be supported by a statement issued by “The al -Qaeda Organisation – General Leadership”, confirming the death of bin Laden and pledging to avenge him. It is helpful, however, to recall the nature of asymmetric conflict: The jihadis merely need to hint at the extent of their organisation to have their audience on the run, desperately seeking to defeat what might not exist in the first place. The intention here is not to deny the existence of al-Qaeda, but to question its nature. What – exactly – is al-Qaeda, and how do we know?
The death of bin Laden might provide a sense of finality and closure, but this also means that his voice remains unheard and the superiority of the US discourse unquestioned. Ten years after 9/11, it is time for a more nuanced debate that moves beyond established wisdoms and truth claims.