Are the dots still disconnected?

Airfreight security

When President Obama famously spoke of a “failure to connect the dots” earlier this year, he was speaking about the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.

Obama promised swift and decisive action to fix the issues that led to an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operative, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, getting on the plane with an improvised explosive device (IED) and attempting to detonate it during the descent to Detroit Metro Airport.

So when two powerful and deadly IEDs were discovered in airfreight at East Midlands and Dubai airports in late October, their discovery was said to be proof of effective intelligence-gathering thwarting another attempted terrorist strike.

Planned interdiction or good fortune?
Press reports suggest information about the plot came from Jaber al-Faifi, a repentant AQAP operative, who handed himself over to the Saudi Arabia authorities two weeks before the IEDs were found. His status is unclear. We’re told he had been an inmate at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, had subsequently been repatriated to Saudi Arabia and had undergone a well-publicised rehabilitation programme. Apparently he then went off the radar, joined AQAP in Yemen and reappeared on that same radar just prior to shipment of the IEDs.

This appears far-fetched to many sources. Most of them suggest that Jaber al-Faifi had been turned by the Saudi authorities, that he was probably acting as an intelligence resource in Yemen and only resurfaced after belatedly discovering that the IEDs were in motion. This version of events makes more sense, not least because it seems inconceivable that Saudi Arabia would sit on information of this magnitude until the 11th hour. However, it does suggest that the discovery of the IEDs came about through good fortune, rather than well-planned interdiction. Whatever the truth behind Jaber al-Faifi’s involvement, we are now certain that AQAP was behind the plot.

Master bomb maker
We are also pretty certain that the master bomb maker was Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri. He is thought to be hiding out with AQAP’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former aide to Osama Bin Laden, under the protection of local tribes in the mountainous Yemeni governorates of Shabwa and Marib.

Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri and his brother, Abdullah, are said to have disappeared from the family home in the holy city of Mecca in 2007. In August 2009, Abdullah carried out an unsuccessful suicide attack on Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. He wore a device designed to evade the airport-style security which protected the prince. Forensic examination revealed the force of the blast went downwards, as evidenced by a crater in the concrete floor of the Jeddah offices where he met Bin Nayef. This is thought to be the primary reason the deputy interior minister suffered only minor injuries.

Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri made the IED worn by his brother and the device is believed to have been very similar to the one worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. At least one of the IEDs discovered in the recent airfreight attempts in East Midlands and Dubai, contained a detonator strikingly similar to one made for Abdulmutallab.

Honing skills
It is becoming painfully evident that Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri has intimate knowledge of how the aviation security system works, the capability of the technology deployed to prevent IEDs from being spirited aboard aircraft and where the weak points exist.

The devices seen so far have all contained the highly explosive Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate (PETN) in various quantities. PETN can be mixed with a plasticiser to form Detasheet/Primasheet and is a constituent of Semtex. Lead Azide, an inorganic compound often found in detonators, has allegedly been discovered in at least one, if not both, of the airfreight IEDs. Both these components are produced in powder form and have clearly been selected to limit the possibility of detection.

Airfreight dockets attached to the parcel found at East Midlands Airport apparently show that it was x-ray screened in both Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and Dubai, before being transshipped via Cologne, onwards to Philadelphia and then Chicago. An initial examination of the parcel revealed nothing and it’s understood to have been re-cleared for flight when information came from the Dubai authorities that prompted a fresh examination.

Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) investigators have received copies of the x-rays from Dubai and admit that German security staff would not have identified the explosive either. Had the device not been intercepted, the Metropolitan Police says it was timed to explode somewhere over the United States eastern seaboard. The level of skill exhibited in the construction and concealment of both airfreight IEDs, grimly indicates that the master bomb maker continues to hone his expertise. Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri came perilously close to taking an airliner out of the skies, but the next time around he may very well succeed.

Air security conundrum
Whenever the threat cannot be sensed by one method or another, it is fair to conclude that a potent threat exists.

Passenger facing security systems in some parts of the world have an inbuilt ability to identify the presence of the likes of PETN. The same can’t be said of the cargo environment. Organisations like the International Federation of Airline Pilot Associations (IFALPA) and the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), have consistently warned that airfreight remains the soft underbelly of aviation security. The system is geared towards relying on security at the departure airport, says German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière. Security processes at point of airfreight origin represent the glue holding a flaky system together. Perhaps it’s high time that we re-evaluate this failed regime and get real about air security?

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