Bomb detection on a wing and a prayer

Even though the UK has banned the export of the ADE-651 bomb-detection device and arrested the director of the company selling it after a BBC inquiry found that it was about as useful as a diving rod, Iraqi officials are insisting that they still work.

At the same time, Thai officials are insisting that an equally questionable bomb-detection product, the GT200, is still a useful tool in the struggle against insurgents in southern Thailand.

This apparent state of denial is not surprising in as much as officials in both countries allegedly fell for the charms of snake-oil salesmen. Not only are they keen to wipe the egg off their face but they are also eager to waft away the whiff of corruption – a number of commentators have been quick to claim that the purchase of these devices may be more related to kickbacks than their efficacy.

But it’s not just in these countries that the bomb detection process seems based more on faith than on good sense.

In Jakarta, every office-block, hotel and mall worth its salt is surrounded by a cordon of security guards and barriers. But these measures are more Maginot Line than ring of steel.

At one entrance to Plaza Semanggi, a popular mall in Southern Jakarta, security guards vigorously search every bag for bombs and weapons. But if you go through another door 20 metres further down, they don’t even pull over those with large backpacks.

During the day at my apartment block,  the security regime is kind of rigorous. Before any car can pass through the barrier, one guard looks in the boot with a handheld bomb-detector while another half-heartedly examines the underside of the vehicle with a mirror on a rod. Watching them in action, I’m not sure that they know what they are looking for let alone what what they would do if they ever found it.

That’s during the day. At night, they don’t bother with any of these checks, waving every car through. I’m no counter-terrorim expert but I think I can spot the hole in that system.

The lockdowns are pretty solid at a few key locations, such as the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels, which were attacked by suicide bombers in July – a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

However, I find it hard to believe that the security measures in place in the rest of Jakarta are truly designed to stop terrorists or even to scare them off.

It’s just a way of trying to reassure people and create a bit of employment.