Chicago attack: Air freight ban extended

The threat of terrorism coming from Yemen is increasingly occupying ministers' thoughts
The threat of terrorism coming from Yemen is increasingly occupying ministers' thoughts

By Peter Wozniak

Britain is extending its ban on unaccompanied freight to Somalia as well as Yemen from midnight tonight in response to the bomb plot over the weekend, the home secretary has confirmed.

Theresa May made her statement to the Commons this afternoon, where she confirmed the explosive device found at East Midlands airport was viable, designed to detonate mid-flight and could have succeeded in bringing down the aircraft.

Ms May told MPs there was no longer an imminent threat to Britain, but said of the Al-Qaida group behind the plot: "This organisation is very active. During this year it has repeatedly attacked targets in Yemen.

"On 26 April and 6 October it attacked and attempted to kill British diplomats based in San'aa. It continues to plan other attacks in the region, notably against Saudi Arabia.

"We therefore work on the assumption that this organisation will wish to continue to find ways of also attacking targets further afield."

The prime minister chaired a meeting of Cobra this morning to discuss possible changes to their monitoring system after initial checks failed to discover an explosive package from Yemen that made two stops on its way to the US, including one in the UK.

Initial measures announced by the home secretary include the ban on unaccompanied air freight from both Yemen and Somalia, raising fears of connections between Al-Qaida on the Arabian peninsula and terrorist groups in the lawless East African state.

Passengers will no longer be allowed to carry toner in excess of 500g in hand luggage. The explosive device, which was not initially detected, was concealed inside a printer.

The prime minister told the House today: "I want to put on record my thanks for all those involved in the international police and intelligence operation, whose efforts clearly prevented the terrorists from killing and maiming many innocent people, whether here or elsewhere in the world.

"The fact that the device was being carried from Yemen to the UAE to Germany to Britain en route to America, shows the interest of the whole world in coming together to deal with this.

"While we are rightly engaged in Afghanistan to deny the terrorists there, the threat from the Arabian peninsula and from Yemen in particular has grown."

The prime minister has also contacted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to seek assurances that the plotters would be brought to justice.

The home secretary did not go into detail on longer term security changes, but confirmed the immediate measures would remain in place for a month. She added that "all aspects of air freight security" would be subject to the review.

Ed Balls, responding to the home secretary's statement, thanked her for her "calm response" to the incident, but questioned whether the security services which foiled the plot would be able to function properly with the cuts imposed by the spending review.

He said: "We'll seek to support the home secretary where we can. [but] the issue of resources should now be looked at alongside the counter-terrorism strategy."

The bomb found at East Midlands originated in a package sent from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, bound for Chicago on a cargo plane. The plane landed in Germany and in the UK before being discovered during a precautionary check following an intelligence tip-off.

Another US-bound bomb was also discovered in Dubai.

The PETN explosive, difficult to detect given its colourless, odourless nature, eluded an initial scan of the package, prompting calls for an upgrading of Britain's screening methods.

Currently the Department of Transport vets freight companies. Once a company is deemed trustworthy, freight checks are no longer carried out.

The news over the weekend is likely to drown out the attempt launched last week by the chairman of British Airways to remove what he called many "redundant" security checks.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) still backed Martin Broughton's calls, however.

Jim McAuslan, Balpa's general secretary, said: "The news of a foiled attack should not mean that government can or should ignore the complaints earlier this week of redundant security measures.

"If anything those complaints and this latest uncovered plot should be seen as making the case for better targeting of resource at identified risks."

Transport secretary Philip Hammond hinted at possible changes to the system last week, but said many of the stringent checks demanded for planes heading to the US were out of his authority to change.

Mr McAuslan added: "It makes no sense to us that scarce resources are used to strip down pilots with years flying experience rather than targeting resources at the vulnerabilities that we seen exploited in the past 24 hours.

"Government needs to get real on this."

The plot has now however focused all attention on heightening rather than relaxing security, with a manhunt currently underway for the suspected Yemeni bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.


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