Monday, November 01, 2010

Back on the Radar

Andrew McCarthy of National Review said it best: with a bad economy dominating this year's election cycle, national security concerns have been flying "under the radar" for the past several months. But, as he observes, those concerns won't remain an afterthought for much longer. Last week's "package bomb" plot is a stark reminder that terrorists are still actively plotting against us, hoping to pull off another spectacular strike that would kill thousands of Americans.

The foiled attack is disturbing on several levels. First, it demonstrates the continued viability of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, arguably the most active element in that terror network. Over the 18 months, that Al Qaida chapter has been responsible for the failed Christmas Day "underwear" bomb plot, aimed at bringing down a Detroit-bound jetliner, and the attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia's senior counter-terrorism officer.

U.S. officials told The New York Times and other media outlets the devices intercepted last week "bore all the hallmarks" of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the group's chief bomb-maker. While some early accounts suggested the parcels were not designed to detonate, experts later concluded that the packages could have exploded in the air or on the ground. While the bombs discovered in Britain and Dubai were addressed to Jewish congregations in Chicago, some analysts believe the actual targets were cargo and passenger aircraft which carried the packages.

Al Qaida's targeting of commercial jets is hardly new, but the failed plot highlights new wrinkles in the terrorist playbook. Last week's attempted bombing was aimed squarely at the air cargo industry, one of the most vulnerable aspects in the aviation sector.

Consider these disturbing facts: the explosive parcels discovered in Dubai and Great Britain made it into the air cargo system, and were en route to Chicago when they were found. Indeed, the parcel discovered at East Midlands Airport, near the city of Birmingham, was located only after British security agents--at the encouragement of U.S. officials--searched an aircraft for a second time. American counter-terror operatives pressed for a second search after the second bomb was found in Dubai.

Clearly, these revelations confirm that the air cargo system in the Middle East has been penetrated by terrorists. The device located in the UAE was being shipped by FedEx; the parcel discovered in Britain was part of a UPS load. While those companies--and other shipping firms--have defended their security practices, there were clear lapses that allowed the packages to enter the system in Yemen, and begin the journey towards the United States.

To be fair, the screening of air cargo is a herculean task (there are more than 1.4 million registered shippers around the world), and many foreign nations fall well short of U.S. security standards. But the fact the parcels made it into the system--and even reached Western Europe, in the case of the UPS flight--suggests that Al Qaida has managed to place operatives inside the cargo firms' operations in Yemen and (possibly) elsewhere in the Middle East.

Shortly after the plot unfolded, the U.K. Telegraph sent a reporter to the FedEx and UPS offices in San'aa, the Yemeni capital. As you might expect, the paper found that most of the employees are locals, including the security guards protecting the FedEx office. Given the security situation in Yemen, it wouldn't be difficult for AQAP to enlist sympathizers on the freight firms' staff, or get their own operatives on the payroll.

There's also the very real chance that Al Qaida members are among the ranks of Yemeni officers who handle airport security. Under both scenarios, the terror group would gain detailed knowledge of security procedures for air cargo, and avenues for evading those precautions. We're guessing that FedEx and UPS are "re-vetting" their employees in San'aa, but there's not much they (or the U.S. government can do) about potential terrorists in the Yemeni security services.

And, the problem extends far beyond the Middle East. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Sunday, the U.S. has encountered resistance from European countries in establishing tighter standards for screening air cargo. In the U.S., 100% of cargo shipped on passenger flights is checked using X-rays, explosives detectors, canine searches and other techniques. But that percentage drops dramatically for cargo carried on passenger jets departing Europe. The same holds true for cargo flights. As one expert told the AJC, "100% cargo security simply isn't possible."

That reality was obviously a motivating factor behind Al Qaida's latest plot. Killing hundreds of civilians is just a matter of slipping one bomb onto an airliner or cargo plane and remotely detonating it over a major city. Rest assured: Al Qaida won't give up on this tactic, and next time, we might not be as lucky.

We'll close with another thought posted at NRO, this one from Charlie Szrom, senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute:

The sophistication of the package plot undercuts the claim that our enemies do not have a strategy and lack competence. Coordinating the packages through multiple flight routes to arrive at similar times in the U.S. and employing sophisticated bomb design required extensive planning. AQAP’s hold on territory in Yemen allows the group to conduct such operational coordination with lessened interference from law enforcement authorities.


If our enemies have a strategy to attack Americans and weaken our power structure, why do we not have a strategy to attack and destroy the al-Qaeda-led network?

Why indeed?


jayemarr said...

"there are more than 1.4 registered shippers around the world" -- this does seem very likely, but I suspect you missed a word in there somewhere.

Just My 2¢ said...

This is as good a place as any to ask the question that is troubling me. The cellular phone trigger has some obvious problems that have been covered elsewhere. Some commenters suggest that they couldn't have worked.

Others have suggested that they might have just used the phone's alarm clock function. This is dumb. An alarm clock can be built on a breadboard with a few components.

Are these devices cunningly brilliant or hopelessly stupid? I can't figure this out with the information that's publicly available.