You can say with just a little bit of hyperbole that all Americans and all American landmarks are targets of Al Qaeda in the war on terror. However, some places are more vulnerable and have drawn more attention from the worldwide network of Islamic fanatics than others. And considering the MO of Al Qaeda, it's no exaggeration to say that no other U.S. facility is more in the crosshairs of the terrorists than Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
The sprawling passenger and freight complex on the west side of America's second largest city shares a dubious honor with the now-destroyed World Trade Center. It was previously targeted by a foiled Al Qaeda plot.
In December 1999, Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was arrested by U.S. border agents as he crossed by ferry from Canada to Port Angeles, Wash. In his car was a trunkload of explosives and detonators that he later said was intended for LAX. Ressam, who plead guilty to the crime, has testified that he trained for his mission in Afghanistan. Even more chilling for anyone who lives near LAX or regularly flies out of its terminals are the scattered reports from a variety of news media that American troops and intelligence agents searching Al Qaeda strongholds have found mockups or plans of LAX. When all this evidence is considered in light of the terrorists' previous tenacity once they identify a target, it makes the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAX Police, and the other men and women charged with protecting the airport just a bit nervous.
It also adds to the urgency of the mission of the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard. As part of Operation Noble Eagle (the defense of the American homeland), the men and women of the Air Guard-sharing duties with an Army Guard unit-stand posts throughout the terminals of LAX with loaded M-16s and sidearms.
Ironically, the primary mission of the Channel Islands-based Air Guard unit is not security but emergency airlift for medical evacuations. But times of war bring unusual marching orders, and the unit is proud to be an integral part of Operation AeroSafe (South), the defense of Southern California's airports. And it's important to note that even though security is not the primary duty of the 146th Airlift Wing, when it comes to successfully executing its new mission, the unit has one major hole card: cops in the ranks.
"When all this happened in September, being a patriot and an American, and being involved in the military, I wanted to fly to New York the next day," says Lt. Bob Parks, a patrolman with the San Fernando (Calif.) Police Department in "civilian" life. "When this mission came up, I thought, 'What better mission for me with my law enforcement background?' This is both a law enforcement and a security mission. I went to my commanders, and I said, 'Hey, if you need me, I'm there.'"
For obvious reasons, Air Guard officials won't say how many troops muster at their westside L.A. armory for duty at LAX, nor what percentage of these individuals have been called up from daily life as law enforcement officers. They will say, however, that the Air Guard ranks of "Team LAX" include police officers from numerous Southern California cities, sheriff's deputies from Los Angeles and surrounding counties, corrections officers, and U.S. Border Patrol agents.
L.A. County Sheriff's Deputies Arthur "Artie" Thompson and Michael Chinery are typical of the law officers who have been activated for duty with the Air Guard at LAX. Both men are deputies with a record of distinguished service in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and both have been on duty at LAX since Oct. 19. Sergeants in the Air Guard, they both are proud to be part of Operation Safe Passage, and they like working with a grateful public.
"When we're standing duty, airline passengers tap us on the shoulder and thank us," says Thompson. "I'd say as many as 20 people do that during a shift. Some actually want their pictures taken with us."
Chinery and Thompson are friendly and easygoing, but there's also a vibe of "Don't mess with us" radiating off both men. And that's exactly what they want the bad guys to feel: intimidated. These are not just weekend warriors standing around the airport. They're highly trained and heavily armed.
Parks is commander of "A" flight of the Air Guard at LAX, and he finds it funny that some have questioned the wisdom of entrusting his troops with loaded M-16s inside the airport. "A reporter asked me, 'Do you really feel comfortable walking around the airport with loaded guns? You're really not trained for it. You're Guard; what do you do when you're not here?'" Parks replied, "Well, ma'am, I'm a police officer." Thus ended that line of questioning.