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Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 21:12 GMT
Britons warned to be 'extra vigilant'
Passengers from American Airlines flight 63 wait for their luggage to show up at Miami International Airport.
Few airlines were prepared for suicide bombings.
Britain should remain on the highest state of alert after a man attempted to detonate explosives in his shoe, a terrorism expert warned on Sunday.

Professor Paul Wilkinson said the incident was "a serious attempt to bring down an American Airlines plane" and highlighted a worrying growth in a more sinister form of terrorism.

We need to remain on a highest state of alert against terrorist attack

Prof Paul Wilkinson
Terrorism expert

He argued that the threat of suicide sabotage bombings - following the 11 September attacks - was one few airports or security people had planned for.

Prof Wilkinson, a terrorism expert from St Andrew's University, said this latest incident - unique in its execution - strengthened the need for extra security vigilance before and after Christmas.

He placed a large part of the responsibility for this at the door of airlines and airports.

Without extra checks of passengers' clothing, including shoes, hand luggage and hold luggage - even if it was a costly and lengthy exercise - passengers would have little confidence in airline safety, he said.

Prof Wilkinson said that if the "shoe bomb" was a viable device, it was "a threat which we need to take seriously".

Man detained by the FBI.
The British passport holder had tried to detonate explosives in his shoe.

"Clearly the airport security people all over the world will have to be particularly astute in looking at the hand luggage and the entire clothing, including shoes, of course, of passengers as they go through the security checks," he told the BBC.

"That is an additional responsibility, but it is a very important one because we don't know how many people there are out there with this mission of suicide sabotage bombing and it is a particularly difficult threat to counter.

"I think the threat of the suicide sabotage bombing is one that most airports and security people had not really planned for. They had assumed that people would not be willing to do that.

"However, with the kind of fanatical suicide hi-jacking we saw demonstrated on 11 September, we can no longer assume that this is a threat that can be discounted.

I think that the possibilities of a shoe bomb was under-estimated or discounted

Professor Paul Wilkinson
Terrorism expert

"It is a real threat and we should take it seriously and be vigilant, not only in this Christmas period when people tend to be rather relaxed and enjoying the festivities, but for the whole period where international terrorists are still very much a threat."

In 1994 an attempt was made to blow up a Philippines Airways plane. Components of a bomb were taken onboard, assembled and left under a seat.

Prof Wilkinson said: "Despite the stunning military success against the Taleban in Afghanistan, international terrorists still have a capability of attacking our aviation systems, maritime targets and a whole range of targets on land.

"We need to remain on a highest state of alert against terrorist attack.

Counter attacks

"I think it's fair to say that the majority of airports are checking individual passengers and their hand luggage with much more care since the 11 September attacks.

"But I think that the possibilities of a shoe bomb were under-estimated or discounted and that will now have to be taken into account."

Prof Wilkinson said that people would not be confident to return to airlines in strength unless they were confident that the security measures were up to scratch "to counter this range of threats".

"Even if that takes longer and costs more in terms of the running costs of airlines, we have to remember that this is in the interests, not only of the safety of passengers, but also of the economic health of the airlines themselves," he said.

The professor praised the bravery of the crew and passengers who over-powered the man on the American Airlines plane, claiming they had the same courage as passenger onboard one of the suicide hi-jacked planes that carried out the September attacks.

See also:

26 Sep 01 | Business
UN agency reviews airline security
17 Sep 01 | Business
Travelling: Concerned, need advice?
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