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Counter-terrorism community on high alert after recent IED discoveries

Published on 24 November, 2010

IED discoveries prompt state of alert amongst counter-terrorism community
Security of airfreight has long been considered the soft underbelly in the overall aviation security regime
The recent discovery of two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) already in transit to target through the airfreight transportation system, has prompted a near global clampdown on the movement of cargo from Yemen, fear that more such devices may be en-route or have reached target and a manhunt for the master bomb maker thought to be responsible.

The devices, founded en-route to the United States of America at East Midlands airport in the United Kingdom and Dubai International in the United Arab Emirates, were discovered following information received from intelligence sources. Both had their origin in the Yemen and one of them had already been shipped on two passenger flights before discovery.

Both were of sophisticated construction, exceptionally well concealed, contained enough of the high explosive Pentaerythritol Trinitrate (PETN) to blow up an in-flight airliner, were connected to mobile phone units and were also viable and highly dangerous. The device discovered at East Midlands airport had reportedly been assessed and cleared, until information received from Dubai prompted a fresh assessment, at which point the explosive was discovered.

Within the past twenty-four hours, Counter Terror Expo senior advisors have been informed that both devices are directly linked with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and that organisation's master bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri.

AQAP's first major operation outside of Yemen, was against the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in August of last year. Ahmed Hassan Tali al-Asiri, the bomb makers' brother, carried out that suicide attack, though the Prince suffered only minor injuries.

Graphic aftermath images reviewed by Counter Terror Expo's advisory team revealed a substantial crater in the floor which suggested the force of the blast had gone downwards. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef survived though his attacker was torn apart.

The bomb maker is also thought to have devised the device carried by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, when he attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day. That device also contained PETN and used a liquid chemical fuse to avoid detection in the passenger channel, which may have led to Abdulmutallab's ultimate failure.

The IED discoveries have prompted an immediate review of belly-hold and pure cargo flight security

John Brennan, Assistant to the US President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism has suggested that the concern for officials is how many other same or similar devices may be on target in the wild. A further two dozen suspect packages have been seized by Yemeni officials, but it's thought the seizures were false alarms.

The IED discoveries have prompted an immediate review of belly-hold and pure cargo flight security in the US, UK and elsewhere in the world. Security of airfreight has long been considered the soft underbelly in the overall aviation security regime.

United States regulators recently enacted legislative instruments requiring 100 per cent screening of all belly-hold cargo reaching their shores. The demand for use of high technology screening systems prompted a transatlantic dispute with the European Union. The issue is the impact the regulation has on just-in-time transshipments from within Europe and the airfreight passing through.

Given the severity of these two most recent incidents, new regulation is likely in fairly short order. The industry fears costly knee jerk unilateral action and is counselling for considered multilateral steps to be taken on inefficient screening methods.

Stop gap measures may emerge soon but operationally sensible solutions may not appear for many months if not years.

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