At the end of October, an “air cargo bomb” was discovered on a UPS aircraft at East Midlands Airport.
The device, which is alleged to have been just 17 minutes from exploding, would have brought the plane down if it had been successfully detonated, according to UK Home Secretary, Theresa May.
An identical bomb, this time on a FedEx plane, was discovered in Dubai earlier on the same day. The two devices were disguised as ordinary printers, and addressed to a Jewish synagogue in Chicago, raising concerns that the Jewish community in the US might be the target of future attacks.
The ‘printers’ were packed with 400 grams of the chemical, PETN, one of the most explosive substances known, and wired up to a mobile phone.
However, the phone’s SIM card had been removed, indicating that the bombs were designed to explode when a software timer inside the phone reached a pre-set time.
The resulting explosion would have caused a “Lockerbie style” disaster. Chris Yates, a security consultant for the aviation industry, said that the characteristics of the device found in Dubai were used to identify and defuse its counterpart at East Midlands Airport.
If the Dubai bomb had not been discovered, it is entirely possible that the Midlands device could have exploded in a storage shed at the Castle Donnington hub, as security officials had already declared it “safe” and sent the plane on its way.
Newspapers say that bomb disposal experts in the UK had to examine the device between two and seven more times, before concluding that it was about to explode. Claims that it was mere minutes from blowing up have been disputed in recent days.
Experts’ rather sluggish response to the threat highlights both the sophistication of the bomb, and the low levels of security afforded to policing freight. The latter point was further highlighted by the repealing of 30 cargo exemptions on Thursday last week.
Previously, airlines could apply for a licence to allow some cargo items to pass untouched through UK security points.
However, freight planes from Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Qatar, Pakistan, and India are now subject to enhanced security procedures, as fears about another terrorist attack from countries sympathetic to al-Qaeda grow.
The recent bomb plot is iconic because of the audacity of the scheme, and for the sheer luck that was involved in preventing a disaster.
For example, the US-bound plane that stopped at East Midlands was only saved because it was overweight.
The careless behaviour of security officials has also been called into question, especially as the printer-bombs were unloaded by ordinary baggage handlers at East Midlands, who were later “horrified” to discover how close they had been to meeting their maker.
Closer to the present, on Friday, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen claimed responsibility for the abortive attack on the plane, but the only arrest made so far has been that of a woman in the Yemini capital, Sana’a.
Yemen has risen to prominence as a haven for anti-Western terrorists, including the infamous al-Qaeda. The country has more than 300 “terror chiefs”, claims the Sun newspaper, some of which helped train the ‘Christmas Day Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.