Thursday, December 20, 2007

December 11 & Security Concerns

While we were busily moving houses on that day, Al Queda struck again for the 2nd time this year in Algiers. Read about it here.

The explosions happened nearby our office, about a couple of minutes drive away. According to Algerian coworkers, the earth shook violently when the bombs went off and a few seconds later, a big bellow of smoke was visible some kilometers away.

The attacked had taken a big toll. 62 were killed including a number of university students riding in a bus at the wrong place, wrong time. The students were from the university behind my office. I probably had seen them before on the way to lunch.

More than a week has elapsed since the terrorist attack so this is already old news. The international media has moved on to other news but the security concerns remain very real.

Despite the constant assurances of local management that Algeria is a very safe country, it takes a little logic and a bit of observation skills to know that it isn't true.

Obviously, the definition of safety is relative. For a group of people who had witness a bloody civil war and the atrocities people had done to other people, one or two bombings a year is nothing. For a Singaporean who has just ventured out of his tortise shell in these couple of years, a sudden tire screech could be interpreted as a terrorist attack.

The reason why I don't feel that Algeria is safe enough is because the Algerians do not place enough emphasis on security awareness and standards.

For example, I used to check in to Sheraton Club des Pins. Although being a 5 star hotel and probably the best hotel in Algeria, it doesn't have a good security check at the front gate where I was being driven in. Like many places, the security guard here just walk around the vehicle and do a cursory glance before passing it as safe. I used to quip that the Algerian security guards are X-men, because they have mutant powers to know from afar if there is a threat or not.

After the first Al Queda attack on the PM office earlier this year, Sheraton hotel improved their security checks somewhat. The security guards now attempts to open the bonnet and the trunk of the vehicle for inspection. However, they still stop short of physical checks or check under the vehicle.

The government security standards were not much better. Any traveller who passes through the Algerian airport is subjected to the cumbersome security checks. For the outgoing traveller, there are a total of 6 security checks excluding check-in and boarding! In conversations, some Algerian acquaintances proclaimed proudly that they are taking security so seriously.

If a traveller approaches the airport in a vehicle, there is a checkpoint just before alighting. Before entering the airport building, he/she has to go through the second checkpoint with a scanner. After check-in, there is a third check to validate one's passport and ticket. Upon clearing immigration, a fourth security checkpoint with scanner looms. If he/she clears this one, there is a customs check (the fifth). The officer will ask you to declare if you are bring local money out. After boarding, there is a sixth and final body and luggage check right outside the plane. Nobody could board the plane without feeling a little harassed after so many checks.

The question is, with so many security checks, are they all doing their jobs? On several occasions, I had observed the security personnel sitting behind the scanner monitor happily sms-ing away. The airport is a classic case of having quantity does not equate to quality.

I was scheduled to leave Algiers for Morocco on the 16th. As it was just after the December 11th incident, security airport was running at its peak. Traffic was jammed up along the road to the airport caused by the more stringent checks (however, still no physical checks) just outside the airport.

Sitting in the car, I realized that heighten state of security in Algeria is only a temporary measure. When you have tighter security, the normality breaks down. In this particular case, traffic gets into a bottleneck at the erected checkpoints. In a weeks or two, in order to expedite traffic and resume operational normacy, airport security breaks down again.*

It will take many years of transition before Algerian security becomes a norm, that is, when functioning, does not break down the routine.

*In pretty much all of Algiers, when there is a police checkpoing, traffic jam occurs or people starts to clusterfuck, becoming a non-moving crowd.

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