UK emergency committee to discuss air cargo security

1.11.2010 (BBC)

The prime minister is due to chair a meeting of the government’s emergency planning
committee Cobra, as calls grow for a full review of airport security.

Ministers and officials are expected to discuss tougher checks on freight, after
a bomb was found on a US-bound cargo plane at East Midlands airport.

The PETN explosive in the device was not picked up by initial tests.

A former head of security at airport operator BAA said cargo checks were less
exacting than those on passengers.
Calling for a fundamental review of security, Norman Shanks said: “We’re looking
at introducing the explosive detection systems that we currently use for passengers’
baggage which goes into the hold.

“Now this really can’t be introduced for every package, but it could be used
for packages coming from areas where there is a known risk.”

Home Secretary Theresa May has pledged to review air freight security following
the terror alert on Friday.

‘Open door’

Investigators at East Midlands failed to realise that there was a bomb on board
the flight from Yemen, before carrying out a re-examination as a precaution.

The second search found the bomb, which was hidden in a printer posted in the
Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism laws, said the failure
of existing equipment to initially identify PETN was a “weakness” and checks should
be made to ensure the most up-to-date technology was in use.
PETN is colourless, odourless and cannot be easily detected.

Lord Carlile said: “I was not in the least surprised that an attempt was made
to send bombs through the parcel system which now operates on a very large scale

“I think that we should develop the use of technology, of intelligence-led people
and the use of explosive sniffing dogs which can be very useful to ensure that
no stream of exit or entry involving the United Kingdom is unprotected.”

The British Airline Pilots Association said its members had been warning for
years about “open-door” cargo flights.

General secretary Jim McAuslan said efforts should be switched from some of the
“redundant security measures” aimed at passengers, towards checking freight instead.

“It makes no sense to us that scarce resources are used to strip down pilots
with years of flying experience, rather than targeting resources at the vulnerabilities
that we have seen exploited in the past 24 hours,” he said.

Calls for an overhaul were echoed by the British International Freight Association,
although it insisted there were “already well-established, in-depth and organised
processes” in place to screen cargo.
Just last week, British Airways chairman Martin Broughton called for some “completely
redundant” security checks of air passengers to be abolished, highlighting the
removal of shoes and separate screening of laptops.

However, BBC political correspondent Norman Smith said that as one of the devices
travelled on two passenger flights before it was intercepted in Dubai it made
it very difficult for the government to consider relaxing passenger measures.

He said freight restrictions were likely – leading to extra costs for companies
and airlines.

Prime suspect

Officials in the US said the bomb found at East Midlands – and another discovered
in Dubai – were both built by the same man who made the explosive device used
in the failed “underpants” bomb attack over Detroit on Christmas Day.

A Saudi-born bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri – said to be the main bombmaker
for al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch – was named as the prime suspect.

Meanwhile, a female student arrested in Yemen on suspicion of posting the bombs
has apparently been freed.

Reports said the woman, named by human rights groups as 22-year-old Hanan al-Samawi,
had no known links to Islamist militants and may have been the victim of identity

Al-Qaeda off-shoot

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said the issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula was key to security concerns.

He described it as a relatively small group which had re-invented itself in Yemen.
The possibility that the al-Qaeda off-shoot was a bigger threat than al-Qaeda
in Pakistan and Afghanistan would concern the US, he said.

A spokesman for Qatar Airways said the parcel found in Dubai travelled on two
separate passenger planes via the airline’s hub in Doha.

The two packages were addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area. Both bombs
were apparently inserted in printer cartridges.

Cargo screening

  • Methods vary between countries, ranging from none at all to screening a small
    sample or simply matching consignment sheets with goods
  • UK uses a ‘known consignor’ system, where freight companies are audited by the
    Department for Transport
  • Once the company is given trusted status, its freight is not checked
  • The audit includes an inspection of site, recruitment and checks on staff, security
    training, and storage procedures
  • Freight from companies without the status is screened by third parties, using
    basic x-rays and sniffer dogs searching for explosives


Not only will any measures introduced here have to be replicated in other countries,
but given the scale of the freight business it may be impossible to check all

Conventional screening equipment may also no longer be sufficient given that
the explosive used – PETN – is almost undetectable.

And given that the Dubai bomb was carried on two passenger jets, this is an issue
that effects not only freight flights but also passenger flights.

However, two things appear clear. There will be no relaxation in existing passenger
security measures – despite last week’s call from the BA boss. There may even
have to be a tightening of the checks.

And secondly, the possibility of any easing in the government’s anti-terror legislation
– on control orders and 28-days detention – regardless of the pressure from Liberal
Democrats, would appear increasingly remote.

More from the BBC on This Story

Cargo Bomb Plot

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Bombs reveal major flaws in screening of international freight

 31st October 2010           The bomb at East Midlands airport was missed initially. Security experts have
said  the Yemeni bombing plot had taken advantage of known weaknesses in the way
international cargo is screened. Not all cargo is screened. In 2008 only 3 – 4%
of cargo on passenger planes was being screened worldwide.  Britain and other countries
remain vulnerable to terrorists switching their focus to cargo planes.   Just a
small amount of pentaerythritol tetranitrate, better know as PETN, could badly
damage a plane.
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