Bomb Plot Shows Weaknesses

THE DISCOVERY of two terrorist bombs carried as air cargo from Yemen to Chicago has led to changes in how air freight is shipped.  According to British and US Government statements, behind-the-scenes intelligence by international security services led to the discovery of the suspect packages that were in the process of being transported by air on October 29.  Both were subsequently described by the British and US Governments as: “viable” explosive devices.
The explosives were sent from the Yemeni capital Sanaa via cargo specialists FedEx and UPS.  Initially it was thought that both packages were flown out on cargo aircraft but Qatar Airways later confirmed that the package intercepted in Dubai had been transported on two of its passenger flights, the first from Yemen to Doha before being flown on to Dubai in a second airliner.  The device seized in the UK also went via Dubai and Cologne before being intercepted at East Midlands Airport.  Both parcels were addressed to religious organisations in Chicago.
After being classified as viable threats a number of theories were put forward about the terrorists’ intentions, but on October 30 the British Government’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, stated that PETN [Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a powerful plastic explosive that is colourless, odourless and cannot be easily detected] explosives were hidden within printer toner cartridges, adding that it was believed that the bombs were designed to blow up the freighter aircraft carrying them in mid-air whilst en-route to the USA.  However, the exact way and time in which these bombs were to be detonated is not yet clear.
The screening of air freight differs from country to country with procedures vary from rigorous to no screening at all.
Items of air cargo have not been subjected to the levels of security introduced for passengers post the September 11, 2001, attacks on the USA because freighters were deemed to be a far less ‘attractive’ target than a passenger aircraft because it was thought that the destruction of a freighter would generate far less publicity for the terrorists’ cause that the loss of hundreds of passengers would.  Despite this, many within the aviation industry have long-held the view that all items air cargo should be screened for explosives.
Now, following the October 29 scare, the question being asked within the industry is, have passenger security measures made it so difficult for terrorists to get explosives aboard an airliner that they have been forced to move their focus towards freighters?
Previous ‘failed attacks’ have still succeeded in changing the way in which passengers travel because the so-called liquid bomb plot of 2006 was stopped before any explosive were taken onto an aircraft.  Despite the security services success on that occasion it was still necessary to ban liquids travelling in the cabin and it remains to be seen if widespread changes to cargo handling will be forthcoming.
The British Government introduced a ban on unaccompanied freight flying to the UK from Somalia and Yemen from midnight on November 1 and passengers are no longer able to take toner cartridges weighing over 500g in their hand baggage on UK flights. After the bombs were found the US Government also quickly imposed a ban on air freight from Yemen and, on November 8, extended those restrictions to include Somalia.
The US Department of Homeland Security also prohibited toner and ink cartridges weighing over 16 ounces from any US passenger flights, domestic or international, bound for the United States.
“The threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving, and these security measures reflect our commitment to using current intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.
The ban on toner and ink cartridges will also apply to certain international cargo flights to the United States and all cargo that is deemed high risk will have to go through additional screening, said Ms Napolitano.
Investigations into the technology that was used to build the bombs continues.