Ongoing air cargo terror threat prompts new U.S. decree

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Air safety teams started looking at how to limit bomb damage on cargo planes after a terror plot over Chicago was stopped. (WLS)

Eight years after Middle Eastern terrorists tried to execute a mid-air bombing plot using cargo planes over Chicago, the U.S. is imposing new security measures on incoming air freight.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say there is are "ongoing aviation security threats" that need to be addressed.

In 2010 jihadists in Yemen hid explosives in computer printer cartridges and shipped them on two cargo planes bound for O'Hare. The printer cartridges were addressed to Chicago synagogues. Authorities intercepted the jets in England and the United Arab Emirates after a tip to Saudi Arabian intelligence agents. Nothing blew up and no one was hurt but the incident began a frenetic behind-the-scenes campaign by American homeland security agents to ensure that bombs couldn't smuggled via onboard cargo planes.

On Tuesday new requirements are going into effect requiring tighter controls on air cargo.

"[The Department of Homeland Security] has received specific, classified intelligence that certain terrorist organizations seek to exploit vulnerabilities in international air cargo security," the agency said in a new rule filed Monday.

"Global terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as their offshoots and associates, remain committed to targeting international commercial airline operations in order to maximize the effects of their terror campaign," the rule adds.

The Department of Homeland Security is now changing the deadline by which airlines must file cargo security reports with Customs and Border Protection.

Under the new rule, carriers must file those reports prior to when the cargo is loaded on aircraft bound for the USA.

While carriers already submit similar reports to US customs officials, in most cases those reports weren't due as early as they are now. The regulations are aimed at giving U.S. inspectors more time to determine whether explosives, chemical or biological weapons might be headed to a cargo hold.

"It is essential to perform a risk assessment earlier in the air cargo supply chain, prior to the aircraft's departure," states the rule. "This risk assessment must be based on real-time data and intelligence available to determine if the cargo posed a risk to the aircraft in flight."

Customs officials say the new regulations will allow them to order airline crews not to load suspicious cargo. The government is not detailing the information that the airlines must provide.

Although the rule takes effect soon, officials will "show restraint in enforcing" the rule for 12 months authorities have said.

The new rule provides no details about specific threats, but it does recap other recent terrorist attacks and says terrorists have shifted to targeting cargo vulnerabilities.

Air cargo has always been a trouble spot for counter-terrorism experts. While passengers boarding commercial jetliners and their baggage must undergo extensive, individual screening, much of the cargo flown into U.S. airports does not undergo similar inspections.

"In October 2010, a new aviation security vulnerability was exposed" states the new regulation. "Terrorists placed concealed explosive devices in cargo onboard two aircraft destined to the United States. The explosive devices were expected to explode mid-air over the continental United States, which could have caused catastrophic damage to the aircraft, the passengers, crew, and persons and property on the ground."

Following those planned Chicago attacks, Customs and Transportation Security Administration officials determined that "these evolving terrorist threats require a more systematic and targeted approach to identify high-risk cargo." Federal officials say they targeted existing security vulnerabilities, unauthorized weapons; explosive devices; WMDs (weapons of mass destruction;) chemical, biological or radiological weapons; and/or other destructive items could be placed in air cargo on an aircraft destined to the United States, and potentially, be detonated in flight."

They were motivated to find regulatory and enforcement answers because the "resulting terrorist attack could cause destruction of the aircraft, loss of life or serious injuries to passengers and crew, additional casualties on the ground, and disruptions to the airline industry."

Airline industry and government officials have said that many airlines voluntarily take the steps covered by the new government rules. The requirements for U.S.-bound cargo are similar to standards imposed earlier this year on passenger planes operated by several Middle Eastern airlines.
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