September 25, 2006, Updated September 12, 2012

Athena GS3’s Omer Laviv: Technology is wonderful, but you need an overall system.Omer Laviv can’t usually name a lot of names in his line of work.

As chief operations officer for Israel’s Athena GS3 Security Implementations Ltd., Laviv and his company usually work behind the scenes with governments or super-corporations in creating and implementing proactive security solutions against threats of terrorism or crime.

But one project that the former Israeli naval officer and security duty manager at Ben-Gurion Airport can reveal details about is Athena’s involvement in the four-year, $45.7 million project, called SAFEE, or Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment.

Implemented in 2004 with the European Commission contributing $25 million, the project’s end goal is to develop a system that will be able to prevent airplane hijackings through an ambitious security program to combat on-board threats.

“The starting point of the project is the assumption that ground security has failed, and there’s an in flight perpetrator – it could be a terrorist with a weapon, a bomb or bomber or a hijacker. They’re up there and the question is, what do we do about it,” Laviv told ISRAEL21c.

Since Sept. 11, the idea that civilian planes can be used as weapons by hijackers has become a real threat, and the SAFEE project has taken the reins of international efforts to fight that threat. In attempting to build a last barrier against attacks on planes, the project is working on a number of features that would be part of a ‘non-hijackable’ plane: computer systems designed to spot suspicious passenger behavior, and a collision avoidance system that will correct the plane’s trajectory to prevent it from being steered into a building or mountain.

But SAFEE – and Athena GS3- are not just about technology. According to Laviv, security relies on much more than a good system.

“Airplane security since 9/ 11 has changed radically. Before 9/11 the budget for security was very limited, now especially in the US, there’s no limit, but it’s not necessarily invested in the right places. Our concern is that almost all of the security budgets go to technology. Security is built on three cornerstones: technology, procedure and protocol, and human resources and training,” he explained.

“When you put all your eggs in the one basket of technology, you don’t have a security system, and that’s unfortunately the situation today. It’s evident at Heathrow. If the British hadn’t stopped the plot at that stage, the technology wouldn’t have been able to stop them at the airport. What the terrorists planned to do there would not have worked at Ben-Gurion, due to the different security considerations. Technology is wonderful, but you need an overall system,” Laviv added.

While Athena is dwarfed in name recognition by its partners in the SAFEE project – including aircraft maker Airbus, its parents EADS and BAE Systems, as well as Thales and Siemens AG – the 10-year-old company’s expertise and influence is the fuel that’s driving it ahead. ATHENA GS3’s client roster consists of notable Global 100 companies, governments and public organizations including: the EU, Microsoft, Northwest Airlines, Pittsburgh International Airport, MWAA, Exelon Generation and many others.

“You could say that we’re security concept designers. As an analogy, let’s use this comparison. If someone is buying a home and they want to redesign the interior, the first thing they’ll do is to take on an architect or interior designer. They design the concept and only after that is a contractor or an integrator hired to actually implement the designs and do the job,” said Laviv.

“We’re not only security concept designers but also security integrators. But we’ll almost never take on the integration if we didn’t have input into the planning. For most of our clients, it works out that we do the design work, and if possible the integration as well. Doing both enables a better job in the end.”

“As concept designers, we’ve played a major role in designing the system whose motto is ‘zero hijacking policy.’ What we’ve planned is a system that will be able to give early warning of an actual terror event in flight and provide the means to prevent it.”

Founded by Shabtai Shavit, the former head of the Israeli Mossad (1989-1996) and a leading authority on homeland security, intelligence gathering and counter terrorism issues, ATHENA GS3 has assembled a team of top international security experts from the Israeli Security Services, El Al Airlines and the Israeli Navy, along with leaders from the public sector and private industry, who focus on the core areas of security and crime fighting.

Careful not to divulge any information which might compromise the identity of a client, Omer describes an actual customer.

“In a certain country, there was a very high percentage of a certain kind of crime, and the country couldn’t deal with the problem using their own police squad because they suspected the criminals were getting inside information from the police. The government approached us for a plan ? what we did was to establish a totally new unit within the local police that would report directly to the internal security minister of the government.

“We provided this unit with the system and training to gather intelligence and the tools to handle crisis situations. They came to Israel for six months, learned about intelligence work and how to understand the background of criminal activity, and how to plan actions to prevent that activity. They went back home and mobilized and the result was a decrease of 60% in six months in that kind of crime in the part of the city where the unit was deployed. Now, as a result of that success, we’re preparing the next stage which is doubling the number of officers in the unit,” said Laviv with pride.

He added that part of the company’s uniqueness is their ability to provide and train personnel.

“We help our clients recruit and train people – we recruit new people from universities or from wherever applicable and train them from scratch. You need to go outside because you don’t know who you can trust inside. We have our system tools and a psychologist as part of our team, and they undergo extensive exams and we do background checks. But we’re not a manpower company,” he said.

Laviv said that Athena joined SAFEE at the very beginning “even before it was authorized by the EU” after being headhunted and offered the position. He credits the company’s expertise in security technology consulting as being one of the main factors in the confidence the project has placed in them.

“We have tremendous know-how in current technologies that are evolving in the security area. For some companies, we’re constantly monitoring what’s happening out there and what new developments there are. We’re constantly keeping up with the latest literature, going to expositions which are presenting the front line of technological innovations. Israeli companies come to us because they know we’re in a position to recommend them. Being concept designers, we’re in that position to recommend certain technologies to solve a client’s specific problem,” he said.

Laviv often lectures around the world. He has addressed the issue of airport security technologies at an airport security conference in Hong Kong, and in November will be speaking at an Aviation Security Technology Symposium in Washington DC.

Athena’s staff is spread out around the globe with the management team in Israel numbering 10, and another 20 employees in Africa and Europe. Laviv said that a good amount of resources are being devoted to the SAFEE project, and that the cooperation and exposure of the multinational partners to Athena’s way of thinking has resulted in some unexpected benefits.

“We were accepted into the ‘club’ very easily, and I think we’re appreciated as an Israeli company. And the other companies are making use of our experience to benefit the project. We also used the opportunity to bring delegates to Israel, which under normal circumstance wouldn’t have likely happened. About six months ago, we organized a conference here on security aviation and many of our colleagues from the project came here,” he said.

With the SAFEE project due to end next year, Laviv is confident that the group will meet its goals of devising a plan to prevent planes from being hijacked.

“The goals of our projects are just for a design, and at the end of the project, there will be a system that’s workable. Then, I presume and I hope that it will start a new phase of implementation.”

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