Bombs On Board

An al-Qaeda plot against the global cargo network reopens a debate on the cost of security

  • Martin Meissner / AP

    Packages become very hard to search once they are bundled onto pallets or loaded into containers.

    In 1988, two Libyans in Malta bought a Toshiba boom box, filled it with more than 10 oz. (280 g) of plastic explosive and loaded it into a brown Samsonite bag that was put on an aircraft bound for New York City. Ever since that flight—Pan Am 103—blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, the world has known that international air transport is vulnerable to terrorism. Last week came a frightening reminder of that truth. There were no casualties this time, but the could-have-been scenarios were sobering: two bombs hidden inside the toner cartridges of Hewlett-Packard P2055 LaserJet desktop printers made their way from Sana'a, Yemen, by FedEx and UPS to cargo hubs in Dubai and Britain—traveling some of the way in the holds of passenger aircraft—before being intercepted just hours short of take-off for Chicago.

    An attack that could have killed hundreds on board those planes—and more on the ground below—days before U.S. midterm elections might have succeeded if not for U.S. and Saudi intelligence services discovering the threat. But if the bombers failed in their mission, they got the world's attention. President Barack Obama made a statement from the White House 24 hours after the plot was discovered, and U.S. counterterrorism forces went into action. Authorities searched UPS and FedEx planes in Philadelphia and Newark and a UPS truck in New York City, all of which were carrying cargo from Yemen. The U.S., U.K., Germany and the Netherlands grounded all cargo from Yemen, and the U.S. Postal Service froze mail from that country.

    The plot, which was probably the work of al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, exposed the vulnerabilities of the global cargo-security system. Nearly 81 billion lb. (37 billion kg) of cargo is carried every year by aircraft around the world, 34.8 billion lb. (16 billion kg) in the U.S. alone. Of that, 6.6 billion lb. (3 billion kg) is carried on passenger flights in and out of the country. While passengers have learned to endure greatly increased checks at airports over the past decade, security procedures for shipments run the gamut from screening all cargo in some countries to virtually none of it in others. As for the U.S., last June the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told Congress it would miss an August 2010 deadline to screen all cargo on inbound passenger flights to the U.S. The TSA's John Sammon told Congress the administration would need another three years to get from 65% screening to 100% on those flights but admitted he wasn't sure how they would do it. (All domestic cargo is screened, as is all "high-risk" international cargo, but the TSA won't say whether a printer sent from Yemen to a synagogue in Chicago qualifies as high-risk.)

    Underlying the vulnerabilities are predictable challenges like cross-border differences over the need for security measures and the difficulty of searching cargo, especially in poor countries like Yemen. But there is also a hardheaded calculation of cost. Last spring the TSA considered imposing a strict cargo-screening standard on all passenger flights inbound to the U.S. but decided that forcing airlines to do so would be too costly. The TSA's conclusion: "The effect of imposing such screening standards in the near future could result in increased costs for international passenger travel and for imported goods and possible reduction in passenger traffic and foreign imports," according to a June 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office. On Nov. 2, TSA head John Pistole echoed the position at a conference of the International Air Transport Association in Frankfurt. "Security cannot bring business to a standstill," Pistole said.

    It's a position that might have seemed defensible until the cargo bombs: after all, the economic recovery is fragile, and there have been no casualties so far from bombs on cargo planes. But the Yemeni bomb plot has weakened such arguments. Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who introduced the 2007 legislation requiring full screening of cargo on inbound U.S. passenger flights by August 2010, says TSA is giving in to industry concerns. "The same argument has been made since 9/11 by the airline industry with regard to screening all passengers on flights—that it would cause expense and delay—and neither has occurred," he says. Had they succeeded, al-Qaeda's bombings would certainly have changed the TSA's calculation of the cost of security. The question is whether a close shave might have the same effect.

    Death by Delivery
    The plotters had sophisticated bombmaking skills and an understanding of the weaknesses in the global cargo-security system. Printer cartridges have a sealed compartment where a bomb can artfully be hidden, and pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the explosive used in the Yemen bombs, is a concentrated powder almost indistinguishable on X-ray scanners from the powdered ink normally found in printer cartridges. Multiple electronic parts in the cartridge can mask a triggering mechanism—in this case, it was the processing board from a cell phone connected to the printer head, which was designed to act as a detonator.

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