Airports tighten security after explosives found

October 29, 2010 8:54:45 PM PDT
All packages shipped from Yemen to the U.S. will be checked after two explosive devices -- bound for Chicago -- were found on cargo planes on Friday.

Those bombs were in packages addressed to Jewish places of worship in the Chicago area. They were found on cargo planes in Dubai and England. Both originated in Yemen.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he learned of the "credible terror threat" Thursday night, at which point officials decided to isolate cargo planes- including one in Philadelphia and one in New Jersey- carrying packages from Yemen for investigation. There are reports other non-active devices were found. Searches were also carried out at delivery hubs in New York.

"I was alerted to this threat last night by my top terrorism advisor and I directed the Department of Homeland Security to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the citizens from that type of attack. Those measures led to additional screening of some planes in Newark and Philadelphia. The Department of Homeland Security is al taking steps to enhance the safety of air travel including additional cargo screening," said Pres. Obama.

U.S. and European authorities said a foreign tip on a bomb plot using cargo planes and trucks led to the investigation. Authorities say 500 to 600 al-Qaida operatives operate out of Yemen. No actual bombs have been found on United States soil.

The first explosive device found on a cargo plane at the East Midlands Airport is described as a manipulated toner cassette with wires and powder coming out of it. The UAE device was found later. Neither was addressed to the synagogue across the street from President Obama's Hyde Park home, where he is expected to spend part of the weekend while in Chicago.

Tests on suspicious packages found onboard two planes at Philadelphia and Newark Liberty international airports were not explosive. Those were shipped from Yemen through Birmingham, England.

Newark Liberty International Airports was given the "all clear" by law enforcement agencies around 11:15 CST, as was East Midlands Airport in England where another cargo plane was searched. The investigation continues on the ground at Philadelphia International Airport. WPVI: ABC7's sister station reports from Philly | WABC: ABC7's sister station reports from NYC

US airports, cargo flights step up security

Airport security for passengers has been much tighter since the September 11th attacks- but that is not necessarily the case for air cargo. Much of that air cargo still flies uninspected which could make it a target for terrorists.

"I think they have been testing everything they can think of. And that's why we have to be on high guard," said Aaron Gellman, Northwestern University aviation security expert.

Cargo screening typically goes on far from the eye of air traveler.

"We see it on the front end how much security we go through personally, but as for the containers coming into the United States, specifically from abroad, who knows?" said Kip Merrill, air traveler.

Security experts have long been concerned with vulnerabilities in cargo screening simply because there's so much of it. On August 1, domestic airlines had to be at a 100-percent screening level for all the cargo they carry. But the load of cargo destined for the states from overseas is huge. Last year it amounted to nearly 32 billion pounds.

"We have done a good job in flights with passengers. But cargo in general, port, UPS, FedEx, whatever it might be, is always a concern because there's so much of it that moves around the system and so hard to screen all of it," said Prof. Thomas Mockaitis, DePaul University terrorism expert.

While it would seem impossible to screen everything, shippers like UPS and FedEx say they have to know their customers. How the devices were able to be placed on two aircraft without detection is not known. What if this was a test, a dry run mail bomb plot?

"That ain't the way to get it there. Better find another route," said Gellman. "I can't believe they would do otherwise."

Fed Ex has canceled all of its shipments out of Ymen. The United Kingdom is doing the same.

There is no noticeable change in security outside of O'Hare International Airport. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement that it has stepped up security: Some of these security measures will be visible while others will not. The public may recognize specific enhancements including heightened cargo screening and 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.

The public is asked to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement.


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