Foiled Parcel Plot: World Scrambles to Tighten Air Cargo Security

As authorities around the world are reviewing ways to improve the security of air cargo, analysts are warning that a new system of rigorous checks could seriously hurt world trade. Meanwhile, German officials have admitted that they wouldn't have spotted the parcel bombs, even if they had checked them. 

A UPS cargo plane at Cologne Bonn airport. Zoom
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A UPS cargo plane at Cologne Bonn airport.

The two parcel bombs dispatched from Yemen to Jewish sites in the US were cleverly constructed and well camouflaged, and would have had a lethal impact if they had exploded either in flight or on the ground, say experts from the BKA German Criminal Police Office.

The explosive used was pushed into printer toner cartridges inside the parcels. Some 300 grams of PETN was found in one cartridge and 400 grams in the other. Each would have created a "major detonation" with disastrous consequences if the parcels hadn't been intercepted in Dubai and the UK, experts from the BKA believe. They are certain that an explosion would have brought down a plane.

The case has led to worldwide calls for tougher security checks on cargo freight but analysts have warned that introducing a global system for cargo screening would cost billions of dollars, plunge shipping firms and airlines into financial difficulties and even bring world trade to a standstill.

"In a worst case, it would stop world trade," James Halstead, a consultant with the company Aviation Economics, told the Associated Press. "UPS and FedEx would probably go bust. We'd have a full-disaster scenario."

The Saudi authorities who provided the crucial tip-off about the bombs appear to have had very precise information about the suspect parcels and about the terrorists' plan. They provided Germany with the parcel serial numbers with which their progress can be tracked via the Internet, and with the addressee -- a Jewish community center in Chicago. The two parcels, carried by UPS and FedEx, were meant to arrive on Nov. 1.

Al-Qaida Defector Gave Tip-off

Yemeni security sources said the decisive tip-off came from an al-Qaida defector who had approached Saudi authorities last month and provided details of the plan. By the time Germany was notified early Friday morning, one of the parcels had already been trans-shipped at Cologne Bonn airport and was on its way to the UK. It was located and removed from the cargo plane at Britain's East Midlands airport.

The German government has responded to the case by urgently reviewing measures to improve the safety of air freight transport and by banning the weekly flight to Frankfurt by the Yemeni airline "Yemenia." Landing permission for that flight has been withdrawn until further notice. All air cargo deliveries to Germany from Yemen have also been stopped, including freight due to be trans-shipped in Germany and put on another flight.

Germany is also considering drawing up a blacklist banning cargo deliveries from other nations deemed to be high risk such as Pakistan or Somalia, or from nations where freight security controls are deemed insufficient.

Germany is a major transit location for foreign deliveries that are then flown on to other countries. "The system is geared towards relying on the security at the departure airport," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière on Monday evening during a visit to the parcel sorting center at Cologne Bonn airport. He said international freight traffic would collapse if Germany were to impose security checks on all freight deliveries in transit.

German Checks Wouldn't Have Detected Explosive

The German government is calling for a rapid EU-wide review of security procedures. The right balance needs to be found between free world trade and security, officials say.

According to investigators, German security checks probably would not have detected the explosive hidden in ink toner cartridges. The freight papers showed both parcels were X-rayed in Sanaa as well as in Dubai. No one spotted the bombs. The BKA has received copies of the X-rays from Dubai and one BKA investigator admitted that German security staff would not have identified the explosive either.

The professional assembly of the devices has reinforced suspicion that they were the work of trained al-Qaida bomb makers.

'Dry Run' In September?

Meanwhile, US officials said the US had intercepted parcels of household goods from Yemen to Chicago in September which were now thought to have been a test run for the package bomb plot.

The parcels sent in September contained books, religious literature and a computer disk and were shipped by "someone with ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," a US official told ABC News. The September shipment contained no explosives.

Officials suspect that the aim of the September shipment may have been to test how long it would take for the packages to reach their destination. UPS and FedEx allow senders to monitor the progress of their parcels on the companies' websites. That could have helped them plan the route and timing for the bombs they dispatched to the US at the end of October.

With reporting by Matthias Gebauer

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