Airport a high-profile target for terrorists, says PM Lee

"Attackers" storm Changi Airport, firing indiscriminately and setting off bombs, in Exercise Northstar. The 10th edition tests the response of key agencies, including the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, in the event of a terror attack.

Crucial for security forces to be well prepared; agencies urged to cooperate closely and practise crisis response

Changi Airport is a "high-profile target" for terrorists, and it is crucial that security forces here are prepared to react to an attack there, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He added that they would have to do so in a way that will neutralise the attackers decisively, while minimising casualties. He made the remarks after observing a counter-terrorism drill at the airport, held as part of ongoing efforts to hone the multi-agency response to terror threats.

The hour-long exercise, dubbed Northstar and in its 10th edition, involved a simulated attack with gunmen shooting people at the Changi Airport MRT station and a suicide bomb explosion in Terminal 3.

Speaking to reporters, PM Lee said: "If you look around the world, more than one airport has had a terrorist attack... It is completely plausible that something like this would happen in Singapore.

"If it does happen, we must be quite sure that our responders are ready for it. We know what to do, we know how to work together, we know who to go where."

PM Lee urged the various agencies to cooperate closely and have ample practice.

Yesterday's exercise involved more than 650 people from the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and also ministries and agencies including Changi Airport Group, SMRT and the Health Ministry.

The simulated attack on what was supposed to be a busy Saturday afternoon started with two gunmen firing at people as they alighted from a train at Changi Airport MRT station.

BEING PREPARED

If it does happen, we must be quite sure that our responders are ready for it. We know what to do, we know how to work together, we know who to go where.

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, saying that an attack on a target like Changi Airport was "completely plausible".

Within moments, police officers from the Public Transport Security Command responded, killing one gunman. The other fled to the T3 departure hall. This initial strike was followed by a suicide bomber detonating an explosive vest in the departure hall, before three other gunmen stormed the terminal.

Crack troops from the Airport Strike Force and Rapid Deployment Troops from the Special Operations Command swooped in. The gunmen were later taken down inside the transit area of T3, where combat engineers from the SAF's chemical, biological, radiological and explosives defence group later disarmed an improvised explosive device.

SCDF officers carried casualties to a first aid point outside the terminal, where they were given emergency treatment by personnel from the Health Ministry.

PM Lee, who observed the exercise along with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng, said such drills allow responders "to come together, practise what they need to do and also give us a good sense of where weaknesses in our preparations may be and what we have to do".

The police said in a statement that the exercise allowed them to test the coordination between the different agencies and groups, as well as their response.

 

Busy airports have been targeted in recent years by terrorist groups looking to maximise casualties and cripple transport infrastructure. Last year, airports in Brussels and Istanbul were attacked, leaving 73 dead and hundreds more injured.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said drills like these were the closest security agencies could get to an actual attack, and will help to expose gaps that might not be apparent in meetings held to simulate emergencies, known as table-top exercises.

"If units exercise often enough, in a time of real crisis, they will already have a certain level of familiarity," he said.

Phase 2 of Northstar will take place on Oct 28 at the Home Team Tactical Centre.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Airport a high-profile target for terrorists, says PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe