The World From Berlin 'Air Freight Is an Open Flank in the Fight Against Terrorism'

The parcel bombs found on cargo planes bound for the US have exposed a security gap in air transportation. Expensive checks on cargo will no doubt become necessary. Still, German commentators say that President Obama is dealing more rationally with the threat of terror than his predecessor.

A forensic officer removes a package from a UPS container at East Midlands Airport on October 29.
REUTERS

A forensic officer removes a package from a UPS container at East Midlands Airport on October 29.


The parcel bombs sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago have revealed a major vulnerability in global aviation: air freight, where checks are far less stringent than in passenger travel, even though a large percentage of freight is carried in the holds of passenger jets, write German commentators.

The world urgently needs to adopt common standards for scrutinizing freight, even if this will entail higher costs and slower transport, editorial writers say.

Some also praise the United States government's sanguine response, which they say marks a welcome change from the exaggerated terrorism fears stoked by the previous administration under George W. Bush. Under President Barack Obama, the US has taken a more measured and less politically charged approach to the threat of Islamic terrorism, commentators say.

Two air freight packages containing bombs -- both sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago -- were intercepted in Britain and Dubai last week. One of the packages was found on a United Parcel Service cargo plane at East Midlands Airport, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of London. The other was discovered at a FedEx Corp facility in Dubai. The tip-off came from Saudi intelligence. US and British authorities said they believe the bombs were meant to go off on board the aircraft rather than at their destinations.

It is believed that the parcel found in East Midlands Airport on Friday may have been trans-shipped via Cologne-Bonn airport in Germany. Asked why the explosives weren't detected in Germany, industry sources told Reuters that packages that had already passed through security were not necessarily subjected to further checks while in transit.

US authorities suspect Saudi extremist Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri to be behind the foiled attacks. He is believed to be cooperating with AQAP, a Yemeni group linked to al-Qaida in Yemen, and to have constructed the bomb that Nigerian would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate on board a passenger plane bound from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day last year.

Meanwhile, thousands of cheering Yemenis on Monday greeted the student detained briefly on suspicion of having sent the parcel bombs. Yemeni police had arrested computer science student Hanan al-Samawi on Friday after tracing her through a telephone number left with a freight company. But they released her the next day, saying she had been a victim of identity theft.

Now governments, airlines and aviation authorities around the world are reviewing security.

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Now the debate about total security has flared up, even though everyone knows that's an illusion. World trade would come to a standstill if every container transported over the oceans or as air freight were examined. When economy and security run counter to each other, there will always be a compromise, which means a security gap. And al-Qaida and Co will find it."

"In the end there can be only one strategy: find the other side's weak point. It is the instability of the Middle East that serves al-Qaida and the other militant Islamists as the foundation for their terrorism. What could they do if Israel were to pull out of the occupied territories, and if Arab countries were to adopt normal relations with Israel? It would pull the carpet from out underneath the feet of the terrorists."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The fact that the attacks were foiled shows (…) how closely security authorities are now working together: this cooperation includes the Saudi intelligence service which provided the decisive tip-off about the bombs in the cargo planes. Since the kingdom itself became the target of Islamist terror, it has been taking it seriously; intelligence gathering has been intensified, especially in the restless neighboring country Yemen. If it hadn't, the terror threat now may not have remained 'abstract.'"

"The security apparatus didn't fail and the White House correctly assessed the seriousness of events and their possible consequences. The president himself made the announcement. His message was clear: The defense against terror is working."

"Attacks have been foiled, and this level of alertness is reassuring."

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Air freight is an open flank in the fight against terrorism. While passengers and their luggage are now closely examined almost everywhere in the world, there are holes in the regulations covering cargo. This is particularly striking because in more than half of cases the cargo is carried in the hold of passenger aircraft. Up in the cabin, passengers have to make do without nail files and deodorant, while in the freight hold, parcels have gone through only fleeting checks."

"That is absurd and must be stopped as soon as possible. The aim should be to adopt uniform standards for checks around the world. Aviation is still far removed from that. While air freight is closely checked in the US and at London's Heathrow airport, other countries allow it on board virtually without checking it at all."

"Companies will face higher costs as a result -- be that directly through higher fees and more staff, or indirectly through delayed deliveries. That is unavoidable and right. As always in the fight against terror, the right balance will have to be found between freedom and security."

"This balance has been lost in recent years when it comes to passenger checks. Many politicians have now realized that. The EU is right to want to relax the rigid rules for liquids carried in hand luggage."

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"There has been a change in America's thinking. The terror threat remains very real but the country is dealing with it more rationally. The security policy debate in Washington these days focuses on concrete measures against concrete threats. Obama's withdrawal from Iraq, where al-Qaida only began its campaign after the US invasion in 2003, is largely uncontroversial. A large majority of US citizens, like their president, now regards this as having been the wrong front to fight on. And there is an open public debate about the military mission in Afghanistan: what role that country really plays as a terrorist base, whether other regions pose a much greater threat now -- such issues are no longer taboo."

"The US today is far removed from the thought blockage of the days when the terrorist threat was exaggerated into an existential threat and politically instrumentalized over and over again. It's no longer enough to lump Osama bin Laden together with Hitler and Lenin to force America into a war. This is also an achievement of the level-headed anti-terrorism policy of the Obama administration."

-- David Crossland

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