Parcel bombs show security gaps, innovation

The discovery of two bombs onboard cargo planes destined for the United States highlights the gaps in airline security but also the increasing innovation of militant groups, analysts said Saturday.

"This is the first time time that a terrorist group has used a US air freight company to transport a parcel containing explosives and a detonator," Jean-Charles Brisard, a global consultant on terror groups, told AFP.

Authorities in Dubai and Britain said that suspect packages from Yemen found on cargo planes transiting their airports on Friday contained viable explosives that could have caused serious damage if detonated.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, security measures for passenger flights have been tightened, but the latest alert has raised serious questions about regulations for freight.

Daniel Kaufmann, senior fellow, global economy and development at the Brookings Institution in the United States, said it highlighted "the inconsistent way whereby air cargo is screened around the world.

"No country screens air cargo as stringently as passengers and their baggage are screened, even though air cargo also poses risks to passengers," Kaufmann said.
Air cargo may often be transferred to the cargo hold in passenger planes after travelling by freight plane for the first leg of its journey, he said in a commentary.

"Furthermore, there are different technological capabilities and standards of screening cargo for instance cargo screening is more lax in the UK... than in the US."

"Cargo planes have always been the Achilles heel," Chris Yates, security editor at Jane's Aviation, told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

He added: "It is very difficult to examine certain sized containers in any depth, given the technology."

Mustafa Alani, head of security and defence at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai agreed that the sheer volume of packages carried by global parcel firms such as UPS and FedEx made it hard to be vigilant.

"The scale of these companies limits their surveillance abilities they manage hundreds of millions of packages every day," he said.

The package found in Dubai contained explosives contained in the ink compartment of a printer, according to police a fact that Alani said made them "extremely difficult to detect".

"The package was screened in Yemen by FedEx, which like UPS has its own security detection system, and was checked again at Sanaa airport. So it wasn't the fault of either the company or the airport authorities," he said.

US officials and Dubai police said the devices bore all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda, and security experts noted that the explosive used had previously been used by the terror network's branch in the Arabian peninsular (AQAP).

The Dubai parcel was laced with PETN, the same powerful explosive used by would-be 2009 Christmas day bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2001 attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

Brisard, a global consultant on terror groups, said Abdulmutallab was a member of AQAP and his mode of carrying the explosive in his underwear was only one example of their increasingly innovative way of operating.

"We saw them in 2009 when they tried to kill the Saudi interior minister with one of their men who blew himself up with an explosive inside his body," the Frenchman said.

He added: "The group is suspected of having worked on developing breast implants packed with explosives."

In the end however, perhaps the most important feature about the attack was that it had failed, said another analyst.

The plot showed "a weakness in Al-Qaeda this is another plot that failed," Colonel Richard Kemp, a former member of the British army and security expert, told BBC television in London.

"And so it does show that they have the intent but perhaps at present they still lack the capability."


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