Elite police keep watch for lone-wolf terrorists at Hong Kong airport

Security unit stages regular drills and upgrades training after deadly attacks on crowded concourses in Istanbul and Brussels

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 12:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 9:32am

Fast-changing tactics by terrorists abroad have put Hong Kong’s elite airport police officers on the alert for lone-wolf attackers.

The airport security unit, which is staging regular drills to raise awareness of the threat, said crowded concourses remained prime targets, as seen in deadly attacks by suicide bombers in Istanbul and Brussels last year.

Terminals, aviation fuel facilities and hangars were particular security threats due to high concentrations of people and the sensitivity of the locations.

Chief Inspector Hinson Lau Kwun-tang, head of the unit, said their training no longer focused only on counterterrorism tactics but studied the mentality and strategies of lone-wolf assailants inspired by the evolving approach of terror groups.

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“Terrorism is no longer about a particular behaviour. There is no formula. Any persons inspired by radical ideology could be a terrorist,” Lau said.

“Our officers need to understand this concept so that they can adopt counterterrorism tactics flexibly.”

In March last year, 32 people were killed in a terrorist attack at Brussels airport and underground system. Three months later, 44 people were killed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Islamic State said it carried out the attacks.

Earlier this month the police force warned that extremists inspired by terror groups might have already sneaked into Hong Kong, putting anti-terrorist police on alert to prevent lone-wolf attacks.

The airport police unit was established 40 years ago and comprises around 130 members. Officers patrol in dark-blue uniforms armed with a Glock17 pistol and MP5 submachine gun. Some also carry an M4 carbine.

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“A high profile and heavily armed patrol in crowded areas, such as airport terminals, is crucial as it strikes a deterrent effect,” Lau said.

The force carries out mock exercises at the airport with airlines and shops once a month on average to prepare for possible emergency incidents.

An experienced sergeant at the unit, Chan Chit-shing, recalled his experience in subduing an American tourist at the airport railway station who was seen exposing a 15cm knife strapped to his waist.

“When I was called to the scene, I felt for the first time that a terrorist attack was coming to Hong Kong, though the investigation later showed this was not the case,” Chan said.

“A passenger reported the case to the police as this American man looked suspicious. It shows the importance of public alertness on terrorism.”

In March, the officers conducted an exercise with the Airport Authority and El Al Israel Airlines, simulating an attack by terrorists armed with machine guns and bombs in the departure hall.

The force reiterated that no intelligence suggested the city was being specifically targeted for attack and that the terrorism threat level remained “moderate”.