Air Cargo Security Scares From Yemen, Shows Of Political Force & Real Potential Scenarios

As news unfolded earlier today that multiple packages with explosives made their way from Yemen to Dubai International Airport, in the UAE, and East Midland Airport, in the UK, air cargo security is once again moving to the forefront of the news.

I won’t rehash the basics of this developing news story, what I will do is go into areas regarding air cargo security its self.

Since the Certified Cargo Screening Program, which requires 100% screening of cargo being placed on passenger flights, was made mandatory on the 1st of August 2010 gaps in cargo security have continued to emerge (which I written about HERE). Presently the mandatory Certified Cargo Screening Program is in place only for cargo flying on commercial passenger flights, and only for flights originating within the United States. This alone places a huge gap in the safety and security of airline travel in the United States. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently determined that only an estimated 55% to 65% of cargo traveling internationally into the United States on passenger aircraft is screened prior to being loaded onto flights with passengers in the U.S. Additionally; the cargo transferred from flights originating outside the U.S. to flights originating in the U.S. with passengers is almost zero.

Today’s air cargo security however moves into a different realm, one of air cargo only flights, no passengers. The flights carrying the packages with explosives today are flights not covered under the Certified Cargo Screening Program … and flights that do not have mandatory 100% screening of cargo being carried.

The potential for using a cargo only flight as a potential weapon has interested me for quite some time, and about the time I started researching the Certified Cargo Screening Program I started seeking out opinions for the security of cargo only flights.

In the process of researching this I received a series of interesting insights and opinions from a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) terrorism analyst, one who frequently focuses on the transportation industry.  The views and research from this DoD terrorism analyst indicate that if a terrorist organization was seeking to blow up a cargo aircraft as a political statement, a way to impede commerce, or to simply scare the world and show their potential, they would not use an overseas flights.

Overseas, long haul, cargo is unpredictable. A terrorist sending a package would not be able to determine the possible route the package would travel and it would be challenging to be in control of when in detonated. Packages can be delayed or rerouted meaning it could just as easily explode in the warehouse or sitting on a loading cart as it could in the air.

The DoD terrorism expert has stated, “If a terrorist organization really wants to shake it up and say that they are able to strike whenever or wherever they’ll make a homegrown action. I foresee a scenario of a package being placed on a Canadian domestic cargo flight with someone like FedEx, flying a long predictable routing, with the timer set for 3:00am. The plane explodes over Canada, a target no one expects, an ally of the United States and no one saw it coming. No one predicted it and now the world has woken up to a whole new ball game.  Long haul international cargo has to many chances to get caught, a FedEx drop in Vancouver headed to Toronto never gets screened or a second glance until fire rains down over the skies of Alberta or some place.”

With today’s increased focus on packages arriving in the United States for Yemen, with both captured explosive packages being destined for Jewish organizations in Chicago, many packages inbound for the United States from Yemen were suddenly subject to review by law enforcement in the United States.  While two UPS flights were searched at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), the one of the most dramatic incidents involved Emirates Flight 201, flying from Dubai to New York’s JFK International Airport with a package in its cargo hold from Yemen.

Emirates Flight 201 was intercepted by multiple Canadian Air Force CF-18s from Bagotville, QC and F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base, in Westfield, MA, dispatched by NORAD.  The intercept was not because there was a possible hijacking or a ‘person of interest’ on board, but because of a package in the cargo hold.

In the process of questioning the rational of multiple fighter aircraft I was contacted by a U.S. Air Force Officer who is identified his position as a liaison with the Department of Defense. This Air Force Officer had some interesting views on the dispatching of multiple fighter aircraft to escort the Boeing 777-300/ER.  The Air Force Officer stated “NATO fighter intercepts met up with EK 201 as a political show of force, with no reason aside from saying we are not soft on terror. There was no chance these military fighter escorts would fire upon or down a UAE passenger plane due to a box on board. Sending fighters to intercept another plane is like holding a loaded gun to someone else’s head. You only point the gun if your intent is to kill if you need to. While the pilots are trained to fire if ordered by their superiors, the politicians running this show were never ready to give that kill order.”

Following today’s events the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued the following statement:

As a precaution, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has taken a number of steps to enhance security across the nation and cargo screening facilities around the world. Some of these security measures will be visible while others will not.  The public may recognize specific enhancements including additional security at airports.  Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams and pat downs, among others.  As always, we remind the public to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement.”

I find this statement from the DHS quite troubling. The statement addresses a problem related to air cargo security. Passengers generally never have visible access to air cargo procedures, so security measures will obviously not be visible to them.  Passengers will continue to experience “an unpredictable mix of security layers,” this is not relevant, there has been no threat to passenger security and it states that passengers should expect the status quo.

The Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other aviation and transportation security agencies around the world cannot have reactionary security measures. Once a play has been tested and failed it becomes a diversionary tactic. Proactive security measures provide safety, while reactionary measures are non-effective and are a show of force rather than a real solution.

While the United Kingdom is “urgently considering” new security solutions for air cargo from Yemen, they are ignoring the other 196 counties around the world with potential terrorist cells … yes that is every county in the world. If terrorists failed from Yemen they’ll move onto Pakistan, Syria, Armenia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Germany, California, Florida, etc etc.

Air cargo is global and security solutions must be global.  Organizations such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) must be allowed by all the Governments with airlines within the IATA to establish air cargo security standards.  It may slow down commerce, but ultimately it is the only global solution.  When standards exist in one nation and not another, gaping holes in cargo security are just as useless as passengers being required to remove their shoes in one country and not another when flying internationally.

Air cargo security, for non-passenger flights, has constantly been ignored because it is not as popular with political sound bites as passenger air travel security.  Right now, today, the door is open and changes must be made … not just lip service saying changes are being made.

Happy Flying!



  1. Let us look at the bright side, an intelligence tip that was acted upon and the system worked for now, happy ending for a change. However, I agree with you Cargo Security needs tightening up and as a result cargo will be delayed and will take longer. There will be some screaming not a lot, Cargo does not argue.
    Cargo screening at point of delivery already happens and probably should be tightened more, the packages made it out of Yemen. The question is at an intermediate hub do I pick cargo and go or do I offload the 100 tons already on board and screen them again and then go. Tough questions that need to be answered

    As for EK201, of course this was political posturing. If there was a real danger the aircraft should have been asked to land at the nearest airport, searched and then sent on its way to JFK.

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