Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Terrorism: Cargo security - unanswered questions

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Continuing weaknesses in aviation security despite the strengthening of physical security measures since 9/11 have been noticed and sought (unsuccessfully) to be exploited by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since December last year.

2. On December 25,2009, a Nigerian student trained by it in Yemen and provided with an improvised explosive device (IED) reportedly concealed inside his underwear managed to go through the security at Amsterdam airport and get on to a flight of the North-West Airlines bound for Detroit undetected. It was reported that the AQAP targeted this particular US-bound flight because it used to take off from a departure gate which did not have a full body scanner. His attempt to blow up the aircraft in an act of suicide terrorism failed because an alert passenger noticed him trying to activate the IED and overcame him in the nick of time before a tragedy could take place.

3.On October 29,2010, it managed to have two printers with cartridges modified to contain an IED with a mobile phone trigger booked by freight aircraft of the FedExpress and UPS companies to two synagogues of Chicago. The modified cartridges were not detected either by the courier companies at the time they were booked or by the airport security at the Sanaa airport through which the packagers had passed and by the airport security at Cologne through which one of the packages booked through the East Midlands airport in the UK had reportedly passed*A reason given for the failure to detect the packages is that generally security checking for IEDs is done at the airport of origin and not at the intermediate transit airports through which the packages pass while on their way to the destination. Thus, once the packages had left the airport of origin at Sanaa undetected, they were able to travel up to Dubai and East Midlands undetected. They were luckily detected at the Dubai and East Midlands airports because of a tip-off received by the Saudi authorities.

4. The ease with which the AQAP managed to circumvent the security procedures regarding the booking of cargo by air shows that it could be equally easy for terrorists to circumvent security measures relating to cargo booked by ship. If they could with ease get packages containing conventional explosives booked, it should be equally easy for them to book by air or by sea packages containing weapons of mass destruction material such as material for a dirty bomb or substances such as anthrax.

5. Security procedures relating to the booking and movement of cargo by air or by sea need to be thoroughly examined in order to identify gaps in security which have been exploited by AQAP and have them removed. Why did the AQAP choose the two synagogues in Chicago? Were they known to it? Or did they place a mail order for the printers----that too from Yemen known as the base of AQAP? Answers to these questions are not available.

6. Reports that an AQAP defector had alerted the Saudi security agencies are not very convincing. He seems to have surrendered to the Saudi authorities days before the packages left on their journey to Chicago from Sanaa. He might have known of the AQAP’s plans to use printer cartridges for sending the IEDs, but how did he know by which company they would be booked and by which flights the cargo companies would send them.

7.An Yemeni student arrested by the local authorities because her telephone number had figured in the papers relating to the booking including the cargo manifest is since reported to have been released. It has been reported that someone else had used her identity and telephone number for booking the packages without her being aware of it.

8. The US authorities seem to suspect that the IED must have been assembled by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a 28-year-old Yemen-based son of a retired soldier of Saudi Arabia. They believe he is the chief bomb-maker of the AQAP. John Brennan, Adviser on Counter-terrorism to President Barack Obama, has been quoted by the media as saying that evidence suggested the same person built the intercepted parcel bombs and the device worn by the "underwear" bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who unsuccessfully tried to blow up the flight to Detroit on Christmas Day last year.

9. Earlier in August 2009, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri reportedly concealed a PETN-based bomb in the rectum of his younger brother, Abdullah, who pretended to be surrendering to Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Deputy Interior Minister. The bomb killed his brother, but the Saudi Deputy Minister escaped because the bomb was activated before Abdullah came within killing range of the Deputy Minister. It was not clear who activated the IED----Abdullah himself or someone else with a mobile phone.

10. In all the four attempts, al-Asiri had used PETN, which is stated to be a stable white powder, similar to salt or sugar, which does not disintegrate and is not easily detectable. In the four attempts, he had used different ways of concealing the IED---- in the rectum, inside the underwear and inside printer cartridges. His concealments were successful in all the four instances and the IEDs could not be detected by the physical security measures now in force in different countries of the world. His high success rate in concealments speak of a thorough knowledge of the security measures now in force and the gaps in them.

11. Of the four attempts attributed to him, one was directed at a Saudi Deputy Minister in Saudi Arabia, one was directed at a US-bound passenger plane when it was approaching the Detroit airport and the latest two were designed to explode either mid-air or at their destination in Chicago.

12. Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Yemeni cleric, who now lives in Yemen, is generally believed to be the source of inspiration and motivation for the AQAD. His propaganda and motivational talks are addressed to the English-speaking sections of the Islamic world. While the intelligence agencies of the US and the UK have been keeping the AQAP under watch for over a year now, equal attention has not been paid to its activities by the intelligence agencies of South and South-East Asia, where a large number of English-proficient Muslims live.

13. The AQAP has been coming up as an autonomous organization ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda of North Waziristan in Pakistan headed by Osama bin Laden, but operationally independent of it. Its volunteers/recruits have till now come mainly from amongst Saudis and Yemenis and Muslims of different ethnic origin living in the US. One has not come across instances of Muslims of Pakistani or Indian origin serving in the AQAP. As the case of the Nigerian student recruited for the attempted Christmas Day attack showed, it has been looking around for persons with valid US visas for its operations in the US. There has so far been no evidence of AQAP’s links with the Talibans of Pakistan and organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lack of evidence should not be interpreted to mean that there are no links between Pakistani jihadis and AQAP. ( 2-11-10)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

* Leicester Police
Twisting our fear of terror