Home inContext Al-Qaeda Exploits Gap in Cargo Security System

Al-Qaeda Exploits Gap in Cargo Security System

Samara Greenberg

U.S. officials released the name of the suspect behind the bomb plot exposed Friday when two packaged explosives hidden inside computer printer cartridges were recovered on cargo flights in Britain and Dubai. Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi national and al-Qaeda operative on the kingdom’s most wanted list, is also suspected of being behind the attempted Christmas Day bombing and the explosives that injured Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief in August 2009. He is thought to be hiding in Yemen and working with U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, the explosive devices in cargo packages addressed to synagogues in Chicago appear to have been designed to detonate on their own en route to the U.S. rather than at their final destination. “It would be very imprudent…to presume that there are no others [mail bombs] out there,” Brennan added.

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri is suspected of being behind the mail bomb plot foiled Friday.

While officials continue to search for more explosive packages, the bomb plot has (so far) been narrowly averted. Of the two packages found, one device almost slipped through Britain and the other, seized in Dubai, was unknowingly flown on two passenger jets. The devices were found after a former al-Qaeda operative tipped off Saudi agents.

The plot highlights the gaps present in the United States’ air cargo security system – even nine years after September 11. Although every piece of cargo carried on domestic passenger flights is screened before loaded into an airliner in accordance with a federal law enacted in August, the same does not apply to cargo flying into the United States on foreign passenger planes. About 60 percent of all cargo flown into the U.S. is on passenger planes, and experts caution that cargo is at times only lightly inspected or left completely unexamined.

Moreover, the plot underlines the growing threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. Although the Yemeni government has been reluctant to allow the U.S. to expand its use of armed drones or raids for fear of being viewed as a stooge of the Americans, the foiled plot over the weekend will hopefully lead to increased security for cargo on airlines and tighter cooperation with Yemeni government in counterterrorist activities.

Update: On Thursday, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux announced that one of the two mail bombs sent from Yemen was defused just 17 minutes before it was set to explode. The bombs held 300 and 400 grams of the explosive material PETN – compared to the 80 grams stuffed into a terror suspect’s pants onboard a plane last Christmas day – and were believed to have been designed to explode over the Atlantic.