Cargo Security

The New York Times writes:

Despite the increased scrutiny of people and luggage on passenger planes since 9/11, there are far fewer safeguards for packages and bundles, particularly when loaded on cargo-only planes.

Well, of course. We've always known this. We've not worried about terrorism on cargo planes because it isn't very terrorizing. Packages aren't people. If a passenger plane blows up, it affects a couple of hundred people. If a cargo plane blows up, it just affects the crew.

Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes should be subjected to the same level of security as passenger luggage. Cargo that is loaded onto cargo planes should be treated no differently from cargo loaded into ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars.

Of course: now that the media is talking about cargo security, we have to "do something." (Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.) But if we're so scared that we have to devote resources to this kind of terrorist threat, we've well and truly lost.

EDITED TO ADD (10/30): The plot -- it's still unclear how serious it was -- wasn't uncovered by any security screening, but by intelligence gathering:

Intelligence officials were onto the suspected plot for days, officials said. The packages in England and Dubai were discovered after Saudi Arabian intelligence picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., two officials said.

This is how you fight through terrorism: not by defending against specific threats, but through intelligence, investigation, and emergency response.

Posted on October 30, 2010 at 9:41 AM • 118 Comments

Comments

SteveLOctober 30, 2010 9:59 AM

-It effects the crew and anyone with the misfortune to be where the airplane wreckage lands.

I passed through Lockerbie a week after PA-103 was blown up over it: some streets had simply ceased to exist. Most of the people killed were on the plane, but people on the ground died too, in their own homes.

Cargo freight is used a lot for "optimized supply chains" these days: you buy an iPod in walmart, walmart tell apple, apple send a message foxconn in china and two days later there's a replacement in an airplane heading over the pacific. Anything which threatens cargo flights doesn't just endanger people who work near the plans, or those people (myself included) who live under the main cross-ocean flight paths, but it could threaten the economics of those supply chains. Certainly that volcano over the atlantic did.

CybergibbonsOctober 30, 2010 10:18 AM

I'm just very surprised at the way the media is portraying this - most of the time, the media will attribute the collapse of these terrorist plots to some database, screening technology, or other high-tech, high-cost method.

In this case though, it's attributed to an SIS tip-off, and the package is all but undetectable PETN...

MongoOctober 30, 2010 10:22 AM

SteveL is right.

We're an economy driven by one- and two-day delivery. Imagine if FedEx, UPS, and USPS had to suspend air cargo operations until the security issues were resolved.

Leonard LibitzOctober 30, 2010 10:34 AM

I do remember a few years ago around the time of 9/11 seeing a demonstration on the news. The story was about safer cargo containers for freight carrier flights (UPS, Fedex, and USPS). After hearing all of the buzz yesterday regarding grounded Cargo Flight around the Country, along with suspicious packages being found. I decided to do a bit of research to try and find the company or inventors of this product. I am not sure if this is the exact same product. But it is similar to the one I remember seeing.

The two inventors of Explosion Resistant Aircraft Cargo Container are Solomon M Fingerhut and Richard L Fingerhut. circa 2001

Link: http://surfip.ipexl.com/patents/en/US/... - PDF of the patent is available on this site.

I also found Hardened Luggage Container Patent filed by Sanai Mohsen and Greenfield Gary. circa 1991

Link: http://surfip.ipexl.com/patents/en/US/... - PDF of the patent is available on this site.

Description: A bomb-resistant luggage container of this invention minimizes the effects of a bomb explosion by effectively containing the explosive shock wave and explosion debris, while allowing a controlled venting of detonation products. Methods of making the blast-resistant luggage container of this invention are disclosed. Methods of containing an explosion are disclosed. Methods of retrofitting existing non-blast-resistant luggage containers are also shown.

I wonder if this type of technology is being used on modern day flights?

Andrew's IT Security BlogOctober 30, 2010 10:47 AM

This was carried out by the CIA because they seen the British Airways boss comment in the FT as a political threat to government security strategy at airports.

They don't want the BA boss comment to gain any momentum.

If you're a real terrorist you wouldn't do an attack the same week as someone who was trying to convince the public the government security strategy at airports are redundant.

You would want the BA boss comment to gain momentum by not carrying out any attack for the foreseeable future.

The only people whose interest it is to have a bomb scare at the moment is the government.

Andrew

Frank Ch. EiglerOctober 30, 2010 10:57 AM

"Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes should be subjected to the same level of security as passenger luggage. Cargo that is loaded onto cargo planes should be treated no differently from cargo loaded into ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars."

Bruce, what particular level of security treatment do you believe should be applied all of these forms of transport? Surely not "none"?

IntelVetOctober 30, 2010 11:05 AM

Not to be a conspiracy nut, but, I wonder if the UPS 747 that crashed in Dubai in September was a dry run.

Imperfect CitizenOctober 30, 2010 12:03 PM

I wish our government would listen to Bruce instead of the kooky fear mongerering contractors taking up all that federal money.

Bruce SchneierOctober 30, 2010 12:26 PM

"Bruce, what particular level of security treatment do you believe should be applied all of these forms of transport? Surely not 'none'?"

None.

What possible good would it be to divert money from intelligence and investigation -- countermeasures that worked against this plot and could work against all plots -- to defending against this one of a gazillion potential plots?

andyOctober 30, 2010 12:47 PM

There is an important difference between putting a bomb in a suitcase and FedExing a bomb… if you put it in a suitcase you'll have to be on the plane (or convince/coerce somebody else). Otherwise your luggage will get offloaded (as a security measure). This of course doesn't apply to packed goods.

This means that it is infinitely easier to slip one through packed goods, just send out a million packages. One will get through, you can't be on a million airplanes in the same period of time.

As well as the fact that a passenger plane makes you a suicide activitist, while UPS makes you... well a modern unabomber.

Andrew's IT Security BlogOctober 30, 2010 1:00 PM

Re: "The packages in England and Dubai were discovered after Saudi Arabian intelligence picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., two officials said."

UK's line on this says:

"The plot – described as a “credible threat” originating in Yemen - was uncovered by MI6 after a tip-off to one of its officers based in the Middle East."

Source: telegraph.co.uk

Andrew

Clive RobinsonOctober 30, 2010 1:22 PM

The question that arises is just how much explosive in the cargo section will cause sufficient structural failure to bring it down?

As for "explosion proof" containers that is a question of physics, put simply for any given grade of explosive and any given volume it will produce a given release of energy with a particular overpreasure signiture. Knowing this you can design a container of that given internal volume which then renders it an engineering problem.

Just one problem it will be quickly realised that the dimensions of a solid plate material will be a tads on the heavy side for a cost effective aircraft hold container. Thus you need to look at energy storage that will absorb the energy quickly and release it more slowly. There are a number of ways this can be done one of which is "egg packing" style pressed plates that are welded together another is shaped expanded foam in between more ridgid plats with holes in (kind of acts like the baffles in a silencer). However just one problem these might be light but they tend to be very bulky. Bulk is something that you also don't want on an aircraft as it limits the volume of load you can carry.

There are a number of other issues, but the economic (cost) decentivization tends to be in the same direction. Thus aircraft companies are not going to be at all keen on using them.

Although I won't claim it's the CIA or any other US TLA it is noticable that any time a major organisation (especialy in europe) calls the "US imposed" "security checks" into question the US has some kind of "Oh my God think of the children" type moment.

I first noticed this back in the first December post 9/!1 when the US issued "serious security alerts" against the major European carriers but not the American...

As has been mentioned over and over again the regulations for US carriers are considerably less than for non-US carriers. Which of course gives rise to questions of the US Government implementing trade/service "protectionism" (via the back door) which of course they have repeatedly said they "don't do" at WTO and other negotiations...

The simple fact is that it would apear the most of the rest of the world has simply decided the US Gov "speaks with forked tongue" and is now starting to more and more publicly call them out on it. Even their (supposed) allies are making noises like "no purchase of non-domestic or non-community" (ie NO US made) security equipment.

Frank Ch. EiglerOctober 30, 2010 1:24 PM

"What possible good would it be to divert money from intelligence and investigation -- countermeasures that worked against this plot and could work against all plots -- to defending against this one of a gazillion potential plots?"

A rhetorical question seems rather lazy, doesn't it?

The "possible good" is a chance at finding a bomb, next time Saudi/UK intelligence doesn't happen to hear about it first. Just on the off chance that intelligence is imperfect.

If you could actually outline what sorts of "intelligence and investigation ... could work against all plots", and stop somewhere short of a nightmare police state scenario, you could make a real contribution instead of sniping at the cops all the time. How about it?

James SutherlandOctober 30, 2010 1:58 PM

First, I don't think these attacks can be regarded as "failures" - even if the bombs had been intended to go off, rather than just being dry runs to test if they were detected (or traitor-tracing to determine if the cell had been infiltrated by the security services, which of course we and Al Qaeda now know it has been), they have certainly shown a potent threat reported on all the news channels.

More than the impact of destroying a couple of planes and killing maybe 4 or 8 people total, though, the economic impact is the real damage they are after - and most of that happens whether the bombs go off, because that impact IS the higher security and the associated overhead and disruption!

9/11 did billions of dollars of damage - but the resulting security clampdown cost at least an order of magnitude more, perhaps two. If Al Qaeda had to choose between the 3,000 deaths or tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of economic impact (and still rising), I wouldn't be surprised if they chose the latter. Give them a way to achieve the second all over again just by sending some bombs through the mail, they'd jump at the chance.

Peter MaxwellOctober 30, 2010 2:38 PM

@Bruce's OP

"Well, of course. We've always known this. We've not worried about terrorism on cargo planes because it isn't very terrorizing. Packages aren't people. If a passenger plane blows up, it affects a couple of hundred people. If a cargo plane blows up, it just affects the crew."

Sorry but that is plainly wrong and slightly flippant: a cargo plane would have done similar damage as a passenger plane did to the World Trade Centre or Lockerbie.

However, I do agree with you regarding the security measures - it is infeasible to properly check the number of cargo crates going through airports.

HillaryOctober 30, 2010 2:45 PM

"Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes should be subjected to the same level of security as passenger luggage. Cargo that is loaded onto cargo planes should be treated no differently from cargo loaded into ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars."

Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes *is* subject to the same level of security as passenger luggage. Cargo going on passenger flights has to be from a shipper known to the freight forwarder or airline, is usually subject to chain of custody requirements, and is screened (x-ray and explosives detector or bomb sniffing dog) before it can go on the flight. Screening is carried out either by the airline or a registered screener. There are also limits about what the forwarder can tell the shipper (for example, the forwarder can't tell the shipper which flight the package is on until after wheels up). See http://www.export.gov/articles/eg_main_021809.asp for details.

IntelVet, the UPS plane that crashed in Dubai was caused by a fire in the cargo area - my personal/professional guess is that someone shipped batteries and didn't disclose it. The plane had a telemetry link, I assume the NTSB has all that data by now. It's also possible that UPS has identified the package that started the fire.

edOctober 30, 2010 3:05 PM

@Peter Maxwell

Re WTC: Cargo can't kill a flight attendant with a box cutter and take over the cockpit. It can't pilot an aircraft into a building, either.

Re Lockerbie: Cargo on cargo aircraft can't kill hundreds of passengers, because there aren't hundreds of passengers on the aircraft.

Steven HooberOctober 30, 2010 3:05 PM

> a cargo plane would have done similar damage as a passenger plane did to the World Trade Centre or Lockerbie

Not to downplay any tragedy, but the world is mostly empty space. Hitting the town of Lockerbie was an anomaly, and not intentional. The bomb was supposed to go off over the ocean.

We're a long ways from iPods, or even Roombas being able to take over an airplane. Movies notwithstanding, it's approaching impossible to get a human-sized box, handled in such a way as to not seriously injure the human, through a journey as freight (people try periodically for smuggling, and Conexes are not put on planes).

Then, there's the way things are packed. Any box has a close to zero chance of being somewhere in the cargo container where you could get out. Containers which also are not designed to be opened from the inside. Here's some: http://www.robl.w1.com/Pix/C950200.jpg

No one smuggling themselves onto a cargo plane can hijack it. So close to zero I have no concerns at all.

NobodySpecialOctober 30, 2010 4:41 PM

Obvious solution - you should have to take your shoes off when dropping off a Fedex package.

Eitan CaspiOctober 30, 2010 5:52 PM

Well, if one decides the total risk (lives, finance, etc.) of losing a cargo plane is lower over a passengers plain, than shouldn't we also move all of the passengers luggage (i.e. suitcases) to a dedicated cargo planes, and let passengers only take light bags with them on the plane?
This way we lower the risk for people and also we can place more passengers on the plains, replacing the current luggage space with seats.
We can give benefits to passengers loading their suitcase a few days earlier to regulate the traffic of luggage and make sure it will wait for them at their destination when they will arrive there.

And btw, the Islamic terrorists have already made every passenger move one step towards converting to Islam because when entering a mosque you have to… take off your shoes… :-)

Peter MaxwellOctober 30, 2010 5:55 PM

@ed at October 30, 2010 3:05 PM

"Re WTC: Cargo can't kill a flight attendant with a box cutter and take over the cockpit. It can't pilot an aircraft into a building, either."

If the cargo happens to contain a large enough explosive device with a suitable detonator and timer, it will take down said plane. Assuming planes run on time (yeah, ok, no jokes), all one needs to do is set the timer to say a few minutes after take off as most airports are surrounded by residential or built-up areas. May not be particularly accurate, but you're not bloody likely to hit the local park.

If you're being really pedantic, it would likely be possible to replace a timer with a trigger mechanism that detects em emissions from the engines and simple detonate a minute from when the plane takes off (would be a tad more accurate).


"Re Lockerbie: Cargo on cargo aircraft can't kill hundreds of passengers, because there aren't hundreds of passengers on the aircraft."

Lockerbie is not highly populated, and to the best of my knowledge eleven people were killed. I'd imagine that figure would be a lot higher if for example London City Airport were used.

----


@Steven Hoober at October 30, 2010 3:05 PM

"Not to downplay any tragedy, but the world is mostly empty space. Hitting the town of Lockerbie was an anomaly, and not intentional. The bomb was supposed to go off over the ocean."

Granted, but my premise was that it would be an intentional act to detonate over a highly populated area. The examples I gave were merely to refute the naïve idea that only people on the plane die.


"No one smuggling themselves onto a cargo plane can hijack it. So close to zero I have no concerns at all."

Why on earth would you want to hijack the plane when you can blow up a 300 ton burning fireball of metal above a populated area.

It has a further advantage in that said terrorist doesn't need to recruit hijackers for multiple planes, they can target many planes at once with a much lower risk and resource outlay.

GweihirOctober 30, 2010 6:05 PM

To me this reeks of Government involvement. The timing is just too damn convenient.

Semtex is a very, very safe explosive. There is zero risk of it going off without a proper blast cap. With the right flaw in the electronics, these "bombs" are perfectly safe to ship.

Then, what the hell is a phone-trigger doing in a mailed bomb? You have no idea where it will be at a given time. You have a very, very small time window to hit the target, because they will open the thing or get suspicious and call the police. Even if you have a larger time window, how are you going to decide when to detonate? All you may do is blow a hole into a storeroom. On the other side, a trigger that goes off when somebody opens the parcel or powers-up the printer is a perfectly fine choice and ensures at least one victim. It is also far cheaper, far more reliable and a lot simpler.

I agree with Bruce here, it makes no sense at all to invest into fighting this. First, because you cannot. Second, because this is not a relevant (real) risk. And third, because it will waste an incredible amount of funds and effort that could have a real impact somewhere else.

GweihirOctober 30, 2010 6:17 PM

@Peter Maxwell: Where would you get a "300 ton burning fireball of metal"?

I don't remember there being anything about a nuclear device in there (and that is what you would need to ignite the airplane aluminum if you only have the volume of one parcel). Also, blowing up the plane makes what comes down actually safer, as the pieces will be smaller. In addition, it is practically impossible to target a cloud of debris like this.

No, still not any real risk in there. Maybe a (bad) movie plot.

Side note: Even a 747 weights only about 200 metric tons empty and that is not all metal.

Clive RobinsonOctober 30, 2010 6:28 PM

@ Steven Hoober,

"... but the world is mostly empty space"

On average yes, BUT not around airports...

Most major airports are very close to major city centers and although often built on the out skirts originaly most cities quickly grown towards them and many are around their airports by quite a large margin today.

And as you are probably aware the most vulnerable times for any aircraft are take off and landing where air speed and height are both reasonably low.

Also as many people are aware not all cargo holds are preasurised and as some passengers are only to aware (due to pain) even passanger cabin preasure is not maintained at anything close to sea level preasure of ~1 atmosphere (0ft ASL).

Cabin preasure is usually dropped as an aircraft climbs and it is usually not until it gets to the above 5-7000ft ASL (FAA rules say max altitude equivalent of 8000ft) that it is held steady.

When you think about it, it is fairly easy to make a device that can detect the difference between 0ft ASL (~1013mBar) and as little as +1000ft ASL (~977mBar it drops around 3.7%/1Kft for the first few Kft) with bits and pieces you can buy in a corner shop (see web pictures of empty water bottles etc).

I made a simple electromechanical preasure meter once as a school type project with an older style "coke can" with a top you could solder to.

You can also quite easily test to 1 or 2000 ASL inmost parts of the world (in my case I walked up Surrey's "Mountain" Lieth Hill which just makes it to 1000ASL at the top of the folly).

The hard part of making any "home brew" altimeter is air temprature etc correction. But it's not as though you have to make it all yourself you can always pop into a mountainering shop and by a mechanical "pocket altimeter" for just a few USD and wiring the face up is no more difficult than wiring up the face of an alarm clock.

However before somebody trys to make a "barametric fuse" for a bomb the air preasure varies by the same order of magnitude with the weather in many places. (What you are actualy looking for is the preasure delta or rate of change not absolute values of preasure).

For those with a modicum of electronics skill you could make a circuit to do this for less than 10USD of component cost and the bits are usually fairly easily available.

For those who like to let others do most of the work for them there are now the likes of "home weather station kits" with simple interfaces to microcontrolers that would be fairly simple to modify...

So the ability to make a barametric bomb in a package that explodes when the aircraft has climbed a few thousand feet but is still over a city is quite possible.

Peter MaxwellOctober 30, 2010 6:35 PM

@Gweihir at October 30, 2010 6:05 PM

"To me this reeks of Government involvement. The timing is just too damn convenient."

Personally, I don't think it's government/state involvement: they only used fear as a means to control the population when a lot of people were comparatively well-off, right now people are expoitable because they are poorer. The whole fear/terrorism thing can be shelved for a while.

If I was being really cynical I'd suggest it is a private contractor that has a lot to lose by the airlines relaxing passenger screening.


"Then, what the hell is a phone-trigger doing in a mailed bomb? You have no idea where it will be at a given time."

Then they should use a more modern phone chipset, i.e. one with GPS.


"Even if you have a larger time window, how are you going to decide when to detonate?"

That's the easy bit. The difficult tasks are getting the device on the plane in the first place, and ensuring no GSM signals start emanating from the detonator while being scanned, which would be somewhat of a give away.


"I agree with Bruce here, it makes no sense at all to invest into fighting this. First, because you cannot."

You're probably right, at least not to do much better than the type of measures @Hillary at October 30, 2010 2:45 PM described.


"Second, because this is not a relevant (real) risk."

It arguably is. Just because it hasn't been used much prior, does not mean it will not in the future. Which would really be an example to support Bruce's position of not trying to prepare for specific threats but rely on intelligence gathering (apologies for paraphrasing)


"And third, because it will waste an incredible amount of funds and effort that could have a real impact somewhere else."

Almost definitely. Especially when compared to traditional hijacking or bombing of planes, it would be much easier to buy some ground-to-air missiles and start taking pot shots at planes. Or do similar to the MI6 attack in 2000 and start launching RPGs at civilian buildings, or power plants, or transport infrastructure, etc.

Richard Steven HackOctober 30, 2010 6:36 PM

Not having bothered to read yet another "terrorist plot" story in the media, apparently what happened is someone was shipping pre-made command-detonated (by cell phone) terrorist bombs to a cell in the US. The packages were detected and two things have now happened:

1) The US is loudly proclaiming it must invade Yemen to "destroy Al Qaeda" - and make the world safe for yet more war profiteers.

2) The US is loudly proclaiming we have to protect cargo planes as much as we do passenger planes - which makes the world safe for the profits of the security industry.

Meanwhile, poor Al Qaeda hasn't gotten any benefit at all - no one blew up and the fact that the US taxpayer is going to be soaked another hundred billion or so in wasted funds on a Yemen war and pointless security really doesn't do Al Qaeda that much good.

So who are the terrorists here?

Not to mention that I was surprised that cargo planes don't have beefed up security as I would have assumed after 9/11 that the OBVIOUS security hole would have been at least addressed.

But like containers at ports, it's virtually impossible to prevent something from getting through. Illegal drugs get through. Illegal weapons get through. Illegal ANIMALS for Christ's sakes get through.

So someone thinks they can prevent a five pound package of plastique from getting through?

Good luck with that.

Bruce is right. Take the billions spent on security and give it to the people infiltrating and investigating the terrorist groups. Hell, use it to bribe the terrorist groups to go to Bora Bora and shut up. It would be cheaper.

Which reminds me: Pepe Escobar has another piece at Asia Times wondering how it is that 16 US intelligence agencies with an $80 billion budget can't find Osama bin Laden, when several people at the Pakistani ISI know exactly where he is.

Which also reminds me: My standing offer is still standing. Pay me one billion up front and I'll find Osama within ninety days - dead or alive (your choice, but dead is easier, assuming he's still alive at all). And I'll make probably a nine hundred million dollar profit doing so. Which, compared to the $500 billion or so the US has spent on Al Qaeda, seems like a really good deal.

Face facts. Neither Obama nor the CIA want bin Laden found AT ALL EVER. He's too valuable as the boogie-man to justify their increased budgets and increased salaries and increased departmental career climbs, not to mention the profits of the entire military-industrial complex, the oil companies, the security companies, the banks, and Israel.

If Osama hadn't existed, he would have been invented. And maybe he was.

Clive RobinsonOctober 30, 2010 6:39 PM

@ Peter Maxwell,

Hmm I realy am slow on the mobile this evening, you managed to comftorbly post your reply whilst I was still tippy tappying and watching TV.

(Note to self : I'm really getting to old to multitask :-(

Peter MaxwellOctober 30, 2010 7:00 PM

@Gweihir at October 30, 2010 6:17 PM

"Where would you get a "300 ton burning fireball of metal"?"

That would be the plane & aviation fuel on fire. The plane weights about 300 ton, the aviation fuel burns.


"I don't remember there being anything about a nuclear device in there (and that is what you would need to ignite the airplane aluminum if you only have the volume of one parcel)"

There wasn't anything said about thermo-nuclear devices. Given the plane is full of fuel just after take off, there is more than enough high branch no. hydrocarbons in there to create a pretty large fireball.

Oh, and for the record, you don't need a nuclear reaction to ignite aluminium - far from it. I remember doing it in high school chemistry. The British Navy - again to the best of my knowledge - don't use aluminium for structural components of ships for the very reason that aluminium is fairly easy to light and once lit is incredibly difficult to put out, and rather hot.

"Also, blowing up the plane makes what comes down actually safer, as the pieces will be smaller."

Really, this is a photo from the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and still looks fairly plane shaped to me: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/...

And here is the mess it made: http://www.independent.co.uk/multimedia/archive/...


"Side note: Even a 747 weights only about 200 metric tons empty and that is not all metal."

Is that right? I took the data from one of the few planes I know - the Boeing 747-400 - and then took about a third off it (the real take off weight can be over 400 metric ton). c.f. http://www.boeing.com/commercial/747family/pf/...

Peter MaxwellOctober 30, 2010 7:06 PM

@Clive Robinson at October 30, 2010 6:39 PM

"Hmm I realy am slow on the mobile this evening, you managed to comftorbly post your reply whilst I was still tippy tappying and watching TV."

You're doing better than me, when using a mobile it takes me 20 minutes to write a 140 character text message. If only mobile phones came with a usb/ps2 connection, I would carry a full sized keyboard with me :-)


@ Richard Steven Hack at October 30, 2010 6:36 PM

"If Osama hadn't existed, he would have been invented. And maybe he was."

I'm with you on that score. I suspect he's probably an actor and works at a local Starbucks in Washington.

IntelVetOctober 30, 2010 8:23 PM

Hillary,

Thanks. It just seems rather odd timing, like an experiment. I mean, would not exploding something in a container with lithium-ion batteries result in a fire?

Perhaps it is coincidence. I am a little more vigilant around aircraft now.

RussOctober 30, 2010 9:18 PM

I'd say there's a significant chance that this was all a put-up job, to make a point to the US Govt and population that the Saudi government, whose security service apparently provided the tip-off, is a loyal anti-terrorism partner.
There's a lot for us to dislike about the Saudi government, and they know it.

AlexTOctober 30, 2010 10:28 PM

Not only did the Saudi have the precise details of the bomb packages, the female alleged terrorist in Yemen apparently her phone number to the courier company ! Sounds really like a professional job... Be afraid, very afraid...

mooOctober 30, 2010 11:48 PM

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, this thread is a great example of how bad we humans are at risk assessment.

A bomb making it onto a cargo plane is a piddling threat compared to the threat of a plane being hijacked and flown into a large building. Its not even clear yet if these bombs were supposed to blow up the planes, or if they were just being shipped to terrorist cells already in the target countries. I would tend to suspect the latter, especially because of the cell phone detonator bit. Of course it makes the authorities look good to imply that the planes could have blown up because of this.

But even if a plane or two did blow up, so what? There's tens of thousands of commercial flights every day. I'm pretty sure there's over ten million of them every year.

Even if they managed to blow up a cargo plane, the chance of your package actually being on it is vanishingly small. Nothing to see here, move along.

Bruce SchneierOctober 31, 2010 2:39 AM

"The 'possible good' is a chance at finding a bomb, next time Saudi/UK intelligence doesn't happen to hear about it first. Just on the off chance that intelligence is imperfect."

Agreed. Now here's the next question: There are thousands of possible plots, and millions of possible targets. Which few dozen are you going to concentrate your resources on -- you don't have infinite money -- and why do you think the terrorists won't just make a minor change in their tactic and target as a result?

The problem with focusing on movie plot threats is that it's only useful if you happen to guess the next plot correctly. Intelligence and investigation work regardless of the next plot.

As to them not being perfect defenses: welcome to the world.

Bruce SchneierOctober 31, 2010 2:42 AM

"'Well, of course. We've always known this. We've not worried about terrorism on cargo planes because it isn't very terrorizing. Packages aren't people. If a passenger plane blows up, it affects a couple of hundred people. If a cargo plane blows up, it just affects the crew.'

"Sorry but that is plainly wrong and slightly flippant: a cargo plane would have done similar damage as a passenger plane did to the World Trade Centre or Lockerbie."

I'm not sure how you could say that. I was talking about plane bombing, not plane hijacking and flying into buildings. And in the Lockerbie incident, 259 people on the plane died, and 11 on the ground.

WinterOctober 31, 2010 4:32 AM

The ultimate aim of Al Qaida is to isolate the Arabic (muslim) world from Western influences and take over Saudi Arabia and the holy cities. Egypt is a prized second.

Their strategy seems to be two-fold. First to isolate European/USA muslims from their fellow countrymen. Second to disrupt travel between Arabic/Muslim countries and the West.

They are winning on both counts. With help from the USA.

Nicholas HebbOctober 31, 2010 5:23 AM

From what I've read, the devices were wired to detonate via cell phone, and some speculated that the devices were to be triggered when the flights were over major cities. This raises three questions in my mind:

1. Did the flight paths of these planes actually go over major cities? Or just on the periphery?

2. Will cell phone signals reach flight altitude?

3. (Although Bruce advocates doing nothing) Would cell phone signal jammers on cargo planes be a cheap deterrent in this case?

yasonOctober 31, 2010 7:43 AM

It always surprises me that when bombs and plots become prematurely unveiled the reaction is the standard "we must do more".

Shouldn't these discoveries instead re-enforce to the public and officials the idea that bombs and plots _are_ being discovered all the time?!

In my mind it simply means that the system (of intelligence, screening, etc.) is indeed working.

Clive RobinsonOctober 31, 2010 8:16 AM

@ Bruce,

They showed video of one of the (supposed) devices on the BBC news a little while ago (mid day British Winter time yup the clocks went back last night ;)

It was a fairly basic laser printer with the tonner section filled with a white substance with a couple of wires going back to a pannel with two printed circuit boards on it.

One PCB looked like a standard printer control "engine" the other was unclear. But it did not look like the guts of a cell phone.

The news went on to say that a female student with computer programing skills and her mother had been arrested.

On the assumption these devices where good to go (not confirmed) you have to ask yourself a question (which you probably know the answer too before I say it...

Would an engineering student who had the capability to design and build such a device, realisticaly expect a mobile phone to realy work in a cargo container (closed metal box) inside the cargo hold (another closed metal container) to work?

Simple answer is no...

Likwise would a computer science student who had the knowledge to build such a device think it would?

Simple answer is not likley...

So if the devices where good to go what is the chance they where actually intended to be long distance "mail bombs"?

You could find out if the phone in the device was active and registered with a cell site simply by sending it a SMS message with delivery notification.

And thanks to the likes of UPS's various online services you could find out when it had been delivered to the destination and signed for.

So you could then dial it up (or whatever the detonate mechanisum is) and expect it to go off?

Actually err probably not depending on who the phone manufacturer is...

Even on a 1 day delivery I doubt that the phone would still be functional by the time it got to it's destination due to it trying to re-register with a cell site whilst in what is effectivly a Faraday cage, unless it had additional batteries to keep it going or a timer to only power the phone up an hour or so before it's due delivery time.

The story in the press makes less and less sense the more details they release.

And before anybody says they have seen their phone work in a passenger cabin remember the aircraft has windows that are large enough for high UHF and low microwave (ie the more modern celular frequencies) to pass through and that the cabin floor is made of metal and thus acts as a sheild to the cargo bays.

There is of course a potential little flaw in this argument and that is how the likes of UPS / TNT etc and any carriers they might subcontract out to deck out their cargo planes?

That is do they keep the basic passenger plain cargo hold and passenger cabin with metal floor arangment or do they do something different. And secondly assuming they do keep the basic passenger cabin arangment how do they use it for cargo storage (ie metal containers or just pallet strap down).

As always we need more information than that we are being drip fed via the media.

lucitherOctober 31, 2010 9:04 AM

Little Movie Plot to ban certain sweets from supply chain, bankrupt the business and make many people miserable: i came from Lübeck, a northern german town famous for marzipane, so take a luxurious box of marzipane, replace the marzipane with semtex or similar explosive. As it came in a christmas ornated metal box it would be easy to conceal the detonator wire in the edges of said box. On detection, the ensuing flight ban must be sufficiant enough to make people miserable. holidays without
marzipane.

James PetersonOctober 31, 2010 9:11 AM

I have been concerned about the security of cargo for a long time. I have thought about ways that terrorists could use our lack of security concerning cargo to introduce explosives into the USA. Sure they got the intel about the explosives being shipped from Yemen on Friday, but how much has gotten through before that. I believe that if they really want to get explosive material into the USA then they will but we do need to step up our screening of cargo.

I pass by some of the ports and train yards and see the cargo waiting to be shipped and wonder how much as actually been screened. The sad thing is that it takes something like what happened on Friday the 29th get the public's attention and then there are still some who will complain about the steps that are being taken to keep the public safe for those who want to harm us.

anonOctober 31, 2010 9:23 AM

Back in 1960 two planes collided over New York City, with minimal (as in 6) loss of life on the ground (http://www3.gendisasters.com/new-york/4862/new-york,-ny-jet-crash-over-new-york,-dec-1960). Reality is killing large #s with planes requires something like 9/11 - including a complacent passenger cadre (something you won't see any more).

PeterOctober 31, 2010 9:23 AM

@James Peterson

There is absolutely no need to "get explosive material into the USA". It's easier buy it directly in the USA. Second, there is no need to put explosives in the cargo, much more easier is put explosives on the vehicle itself. So good luck of screening every truck and train in the USA, after every stop they make.

IntelVetOctober 31, 2010 9:57 AM

Clive,

Excellent points. I, too, am becoming more and more confused as data is slowly leaked to us.

Side issue, and maybe unrelated, but, why would synagogues in the US receive, much less "order", printers or printer supplies from Yemen?

Does anyone know how easy it is to test for PETN in the aftermath of an aircraft crash, especially one that had been consumed in post crash fire? The relatives to the UPS crash asked me (I knew the crew).

On cell phones and altitude, without considering the effects of fuselage shielding, an old brick Motorola worked at FL350, anything since generally is iffy above 1000 ft and definitely not above 3000 ft (Motorola flip, Sony-Ericson and iPhone).

BenjaminOctober 31, 2010 10:41 AM

@Gweihir: Regarding how they expected to time the call to the cell phone to detonate the bomb, maybe they were following the tracking number of the package? Bet you could trace them that way through the carrier's service logs.

Anyway, the whole plot "ineffective mailbomb" sounds to me less like well-organized terrorists and a lot more like a bunch of stupid teenagers.

skepticcOctober 31, 2010 11:04 AM

Umm.

How does a mail-bomber know the flight schedule of his cargo bomb?

Secondly, if these "bombs" were intended to go off in flight, why not use a pressure switch?

Thirdly, since these "bombs" were found as the results of tips, why is the intended result not being published?

And yes, I do think something strange was going on, but a simple blow-up the plane plot does not seems to fit the reported items.

mooOctober 31, 2010 12:40 PM

So, with a few more details about the device, it seems more likely that it was meant to be delivered to a friendly (i.e. terrorist) recipient who would then use it to carry out some kind of attack. IT doesn't make sense to have a cell-phone based detonator unless you're using the GPS or unless you're going to be able to see the target (to know when to call) and its going to be able to receive a phone call at the time of the attack. You couldn't trigger it while it was on the plane itself, and that wouldn't be much of a terrorizing incident anyway. So hopefully they are not so dumb as that, and there were one or more conspirators who were going to receive the package and plant it somewhere more interesting. Hopefully, those people will be caught.

Presumably the various agencies involved have investigated the destination of these packages and figured out who was supposed to receive them. If they had arrested those person(s), we would probably--but not necessarily--have heard about it by now.

mooOctober 31, 2010 12:46 PM

@IntelVet:

"Side issue, and maybe unrelated, but, why would synagogues in the US receive, much less "order", printers or printer supplies from Yemen?"

There's no logical reason, so either:
(1) they are part of a conspiracy to ship explosives from Yemen into the US and presumably to then attack something with them, or
(2) the synagogue didn't know about the package but they were being used by a conspiracy of people who did (including someone who worships at that synagogue perhaps?), or
(3) they were the intended target of the attack.

JohnOctober 31, 2010 1:03 PM

Bruce:

If random screening is so pointless compared to doing good Intel, why are all American now required to let someone see us naked or grope our genitals if we want to board a plane?

It was enough for a licensed pilot to decide it wasn't worth flying anymore.

Odd that you haven't commented on either of these developments, yet are commenting on cargo.

Peter MaxwellOctober 31, 2010 1:11 PM

@Bruce Schneier at October 31, 2010 2:42 AM

"I'm not sure how you could say that. I was talking about plane bombing, not plane hijacking and flying into buildings."


In your OP, you said: "If a passenger plane blows up, it affects a couple of hundred people. If a cargo plane blows up, it just affects the crew."

That specific statement is wrong. With regards Lockerbie it was not only the passengers and crew that died, 11 people died on the ground when a plane exploded over a small town with a low density of population. If that plane had exploded over, say Glasgow, the death toll on the ground would have been considerably higher. Does it make any difference to the people on the ground whether they are hit by a plane carrying people or cargo?

I said your statement was slightly flippant because you ignored the two well known incidents that involved ground deaths from a terrorist attack on a plane, c.f. 9/11 and Lockerbie.


"And in the Lockerbie incident, 259 people on the plane died, and 11 on the ground."

With reference to death tolls: if we are going by number of deaths then hitting ground targets with the plane is more effective for the terrorist. Assuming the numbers on wikipedia are correct, during the 9/11 attacks 246 people died on the four planes, 2606 in New York and 125 on the ground at the Pentagon.

The possible number of deaths on the plane is limited by the capacity of the plane (circa 500), while the number of deaths a terrorist can cause on the ground is only limited by what target is hit.

GweihirOctober 31, 2010 1:17 PM

I think we can agree, that phone triggers are unsuitable for setting off a bomb in an airplane, regardless of whether it is a passenger airplane (bomb in a windowless Aluminum container) or a cargo airplane (no windows, Aluminum body), as there will be no reception at all. You do not get mobile phone reception through metal shielding. The problem is not so much that the base-station cannot get through, the problem is that the phone has to be able to talk back to it in order for it to register itself. The maximum 3W it has for that do not cut it.

So, the phone trigger proves conclusively that either the "terrorists" were grossly incompetent, or that a plane-side detonation was not intended at all. As others have pointed out, a barometric fuse is easy to construct, so really, really, phone triggers are not for blowing up airplanes. Please stop claiming that.


@Peter Maxwell: You can either have a large fireball (which will not even melt the Aluminum, the energy just dissipates) or large fragments falling to the ground. You cannot have both.

The Maid of the Seas was not blown up, it was about 50g explosives that just created a hole large enough to mess up the aerodynamics. It managed to kill 11 people on the ground (as Bruce stated) and that was a lucky hit.

As to solid Aluminum starting to burn, it does melt before that. How melted does the typical crashed-on start (i.e. all fuel in there) airplane look to you? As in big puddle of metal? Right, not very. Aluminum melts at around 660C, it starts to burn a bit below that, but only if it is a fine powder and there is lots of oxygen available. That is were the nuclear device comes in. Otherwise, setting the metal of an airplane body on fire in the air is pretty much impossible. The only way you can firebomb something with an airplane is by controlled flight of the airplane into the target. I hope discussion of that risk stops now, it is pure fantasy.

GweihirOctober 31, 2010 1:36 PM

And one more to kill the "detonate in the plane" nonsense: I just wrapped my cellphone in one layer of standard Aluminum kitchen foil (about 0.1mm, shielding effect is proportional to the thickness). It went from 100% signal strength (I have a cell-tower in line-of-sight at about 80m) to loss of carrier connection.

Retired USAF MSgtOctober 31, 2010 2:44 PM

Overlooked in all this was the biggest example of 'security theater' I've seen recently. The Emirates plane arriving from Dubai was 'escorted' over the Atlantic by two F-16 fighter planes when it got close to the US. What exactly were they there for? They couldn't do anything before a bomb were to go off except shoot the plane down. After a bomb went off all they could do would be to watch the debris fall. Since there were no hijackers aboard nor was there any suspicion of any being aboard that could have diverted the plane, what exactly was the point of sending the fighters out?

GweihirOctober 31, 2010 3:11 PM

@Retired USAF MSgt: I think the crowd here regarded that as so obvious, nobody felt the need to even comment on it.

Given what scrambling those fighters actually costs, that may however actually be an important part of the overall situation. This conflict is exceedingly asymmetrical with regard to cost. And most of the money is just wasted, as these two fighters show very clearly. They also show very clearly that the situation is not understood by the public (and likely those in command) at all.

Well, by now I would think a very effective terrorist tactics against the US at this time would be to regularly trigger these very expensive ''countermeasures'' and just wait until the US is bankrupt. Also from all the business disruption that ensues. Classical indirect Denial-of-Service using a panic-type ''defensive'' mechanism that is very easy to set off, does a lot of damage to the defender and is ineffective against the attacker. Or in other words, repeatedly incite the defender to shoot himself in the foot.

Bruce SchneierOctober 31, 2010 4:16 PM

"If random screening is so pointless compared to doing good Intel, why are all American now required to let someone see us naked or grope our genitals if we want to board a plane?

"It was enough for a licensed pilot to decide it wasn't worth flying anymore.

"Odd that you haven't commented on either of these developments, yet are commenting on cargo."

The pilot's refusing the full body scan didn't seem blogworthy. There wasn't really any security angle I haven't explored previously. And I've written about full-body scanners before.

Cargo security is new.

in a whirlOctober 31, 2010 5:00 PM

If cell phones can talk through airplane aluminum walls, what about all those recordings of conversations with passengers on Flight 99?

IntelVetOctober 31, 2010 5:05 PM

Moo,

I ask the craziest questions sometimes, and though not often, some times they lead to correct solutions.

About #3. The few organizations I have worked for are quite specific about procedures for receiving unexpected packages, especially ones from countries they do not regularly do business with.

Not trying to advocate for an agenda, but, details really matter. Unfortunately, the dribble of information we get seems designed, as if someone has an agenda, whether it is hiding something, "they" don't wish to scare the public or something else.

Also, pilots sit in a relatively unprotected part of an airplane, radiation-wise. I can easily understand why the man would object. The entire issue of airport theatre is pathetic and beneath the dignity of Americans. I have watched crew-members singled out because the security folks worked under a quota system and crew-members, at risk of losing their jobs by objecting, decline to complain, on average. If security is choosing people "at random", then that usually means there is some sort of quota system and it will be difficult to avoid lapsing into the old system, again.

Clive RobinsonOctober 31, 2010 6:32 PM

@ Gweihir,

"Aluminum melts at around 660C, it starts to burn a bit below that, but only if it is a fine powder and there is lots of oxygen available"

Sort of true but there appear to be exceptions (or so people claim).

The argument against appears to revolve around the surface of aluminium and it's easily formed oxide coating which is an inert solid that is probably the third hardest material on earth. Like the argument for aluminiums corrosion resistance the argument is the oxide forms an inert barrier so quickly that it stops further combustion.

As for using "nuclear devices" I don't think that is required but empirical evidence is scant and currently subject to debate.

The pro argument is based around eye witness statments.

For instance back in May 1982 HMS Shefield was hit by an Exocet Missile near the Falkland Islands, the warhead did not expload but the considerable amount of rocket fuel produced an intense initial fire and considerable damage. At the time and later on one of the issues that was claimed to have led to the loss of the vessel six days after the missile strike was significant and difficult to fight fires.

The ferocity of some of the fires was attributed at the time to burning aluminium used in parts of the ship along with non plenum electricity cables that made various parts of the ship glow white hot.

After the board of enquiry the UK Navy made considerable changes to all their vessals and aluminium was considered "verboten" from then on.

Prior to this was the USS Belknap which had an aluminium superstructure, which was claimed to have caught fire and "burned to deck level" in a colission in Nov 1975.

Also the infamous Hindenburg Airship Disaster has come in for a share of "aluminium burning" both as a powder (in paint) and solid (support girders).

All of these and other "burning aluminium" incidents have been chalenged in more recent times however many of the voices involved appear to be related to aluminium fabrication and construction organisations.

What is known about powdered aluminium and various oxidants is it can make good rocket fuel or explosives.

And what is known about aluminium oxide is it makes a fairly good "gas mantle".

AdrianOctober 31, 2010 6:35 PM

There is something just not quite right about all of this.

Firstly, either this was a credible threat or it was not. If it was a credible threat, then intelligence worked. Ergo - fund intelligence.

But it seems very strange. They way it was reported in the UK sounds like Security Services told East Midlands Airport to search the plane. They did and found nothing. At this point you have two alternatives: either the intelligence was incorrect and there is nothing there; or you KNOW the intelligence is correct and the searchers have just not found it. So they searched again and this time found something.

The strange thing is that the same night we had photos of the device. Please? Really? The security services stopped their forensic examination of a device to the news hounds can have a photo opportunity? No - we all know that the best thing here is to keep the details of the actual bomb secret.

Actually, you want to keep the whole story secret. If the threat was real, then you say nothing at all. Deny the perpetrators any airtime. "Nothing to see here, move along please".

There is something here that just smells wrong: the cargo jet being escorted by fighters; the UK plane being searched multiple times ("it is there, FIND IT, search harder"); then the instant publicity. The fact that the actual trigger is not credible.

And all of this the week the head of British airports has the temerity to suggest that the security checks are just theatre.

There are too many holes in the way the security services handled this in the UK for my comfort. But hey - call me wrong. I WANT those guys to have a bigger budget, so may be that works.

FrancesOctober 31, 2010 10:13 PM

The fighter jets did not escort the cargo planes but an Emirates passenger plane that also carried cargo from Yemen. The first 2 planes were 2 Canadian forces planes that scrambled from Bagotville, Que. & escorted it to the U.S. border and handed it over to the U.S. planes. That is puzzling in itself; what good would they do?

Peter MaxwellNovember 1, 2010 12:47 AM

@Gweihir at October 31, 2010 1:17 PM

"You do not get mobile phone reception through metal shielding. The problem is not so much that the base-station cannot get through, the problem is that the phone has to be able to talk back to it in order for it to register itself."

Actually that depends on a number of factors. I've managed to make a call to my own mobile while it was sealed in a metal cake tin covered in tin foil (yes, I was bored). However, I would agree that reception is definitely not guaranteed and the device would be easily detectable; after all, why should there be a GSM signal emanating from the plane's hold.

Clive's suggestion of a pressure monitor, a simple timer or what I suggested with monitoring the interference caused by the engines would be far more reliable.


"The Maid of the Seas was not blown up, it was about 50g explosives that just created a hole large enough to mess up the aerodynamics. It managed to kill 11 people on the ground (as Bruce stated) and that was a lucky hit."

The quantity of explosives used is essentially irrelevant: a bomb went off and it took the plane out of the sky.

Your assertion actually supports my argument: if such a small amount (most sources actaully suggest 300-400g PETN+RDX) is used then why would a potential terrorist not use say 2kg? It is far more feasible to do so when planting a bomb in cargo.

Pan Am 103 destroyed some 20 houses. If that were over a densely populated area - as is more common in England than Scotland - or a major city, the death toll would easily have been ten times that.


"As to solid Aluminum starting to burn, it does melt before that. How melted does the typical crashed-on start (i.e. all fuel in there) airplane look to you? As in big puddle of metal? Right, not very. Aluminum melts at around 660C, it starts to burn a bit below that, but only if it is a fine powder and there is lots of oxygen available."

"I hope discussion of that risk stops now, it is pure fantasy."

You are missing the point. Irrespective of whether the aluminium burns, there is rather a large quantity of aviation fuel on a plane that has just taken off. There is a fairly good chance of said aviation fuel igniting, is there not?

Either way: 300 odd ton of airplane chunks falling on a built up area will kill people - that is about as obvious as it gets.

Lockerbie being hit was essentially an accident, so a death toll of 11 is not going to be indicative of a similar detonation deliberately targeted over a densely populated area.


-----------

@Bruce Schneier at October 31, 2010 4:16 PM

"Cargo security is new."

This turn of events is definitely new, although there have been one or two hints at this in the past.

There used to be a programme on British TV called "The Cook Report" which was essentially a guy going round exposing criminal dealings by means of television reports. He'd done a - albeit slightly sensationalist - report on airport cargo security; from memory I don't think he managed to get anything on the plane, but he did show how "easy" it was to drive through several security barriers and gain entry into the main loading bay (terminology correct?). This was long before 9/11 though.

Peter MaxwellNovember 1, 2010 12:56 AM

@Retired USAF MSgt at October 31, 2010 2:44 PM

"The Emirates plane arriving from Dubai was 'escorted' over the Atlantic by two F-16 fighter planes when it got close to the US. What exactly were they there for? They couldn't do anything before a bomb were to go off except shoot the plane down. After a bomb went off all they could do would be to watch the debris fall. Since there were no hijackers aboard nor was there any suspicion of any being aboard that could have diverted the plane, what exactly was the point of sending the fighters out?"

Probably two fold, and pretty much what you suggested:

i) to give the option of taking out the plane over an area where it isn't going to kill anyone on the ground - if the bomb is likely to go off then it would seem sensible to at least have that option available;

ii) if the bomb does go off, to be able to return an accurate report of what happened.


averrosNovember 1, 2010 1:18 AM

At the first glance I misread the subject line as "Cargo-Cult Secutity".

After some reflection, it seems fitting for what passes for the air transport security nowadays.

DanielNovember 1, 2010 2:16 AM

TRUE, BUT PROBLEMATIC PRACTICALLY.

Bruce is absolutely right as far as attempting to stop the plots by using intelligence rather than trying to guess the terrorist's exact plan. However, keep in mind that when the Saudis discovered the plot, they used techniques which would most likely cause as much of an uproar as if the bombs would actually go off. When they say "Saudi intelligence provided information about the plot" it usually means a bunch of people were subjected to not-so-humane treatment, namely pure and simple torture. People talk when tortured, and the plots can be stopped. But, are we ready for that kind of practice to become mainstream? Are we ready to admit we tortured ten people, one of them gave us information that helped stop an attack that would cost the lives of hundreds, however nine of them were just random Joes? Would we accept that if they were American citizens? If it would happen in Michigan, not in Ryad? Would we be willing to pay that price?

Jonathan WilsonNovember 1, 2010 2:58 AM

Given that these security measures must cost the airlines big $$$ (both in implementing them and in lost business as customers fly less and take other transport options like bus, train and car more) why arent the airlines lobbying against these meastures?
(other than that one guy who complained recently)
Dont the airlines spend billions of dollars lobbying goverments the world over?

I am inclined to believe the theory that these bombs were not intended to blow up the airplanes but instead to blow up the synogogues they were being sent to and that the "bombs on airplanes" thing is just because it looks better as a headline than "terrorists send bombs to Jewish synogogues intending to blow them up"

hwKeitelNovember 1, 2010 3:39 AM

I don't know if someone mentioned it in the comments, but the problem with plains is, that they fly over citys etc. If a ship explodes, the fish get angry (but they have no votes and no money). If a plain crashes / explodes, 1. people are reminded of 9/11 and them self fyling, 2. the plain could crash into a city or something else.

Davi OttenheimerNovember 1, 2010 5:40 AM

Hmm, excellent commentary above. Just wanted to add to the list:

http://www.emirates247.com/news/world/...

"The group is suspected of having worked on developing breast implants packed with explosives."

How will screening procedures ever keep up? If security is going to focus on specific threats, let's just hope terrorists do not watch Spinal Tap (e.g. cucumber in foil).

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 5:58 AM

Moronic.
Quote Bruce; "Cargo security is new."

Well, sure. If by "new" you mean new to you, then okay. If by "new" you mean new to the world of air cargo, then you're wrong (again).

Quote Bruce: "Cargo that is loaded on to passenger planes should be subjected to the same level of security as passenger luggage."

Ah. So you did mean "new" to you. For those who have actually worked with real security, this is a no-brainer, as the kids like to say... Cargo is subjected to the same kind of screening - actually, in most cases even more stringent screening than passenger luggage. Have been for years.

Quote Bruce: "Intelligence and investigation work regardless of the next plot."

It's a good thing that the intelligence community has been so successful in intel sharing, gathering, analyzing and investigating... and that they've been successful in their endeavors to unify the community, spend money wisely and efficiently, thus thwarting all "next plots" which may have been disastrous. Oh wait... nevermind; that was all BS (as in the poo, not Bruce).

Quote Bruce: "Well, of course. We've always known this. We've not worried about terrorism on cargo planes because it isn't very terrorizing."

Again, everyone that actually knows anything about this have been worried for years - that's why there are actually (as I said) in many cases even more stringent screening of cargo than passenger luggage.

Oh, and @hwKeitel; I think your points were mentioned in passing... you should probably look over the comments before you post...

shadowfirebirdNovember 1, 2010 7:16 AM

If the information we have is accurate -- and of course I have no means of telling how accurate it is -- then this is a new and disturbing development: terrorists actually trying to scare people instead of just making a big bang.

As Bruce says, there is not much capital in blowing up a cargo plane from the point of view of the sort of terrorist plot we've seen so far.

The IRA knew that there was just as much capital in a phoney bomb scare as there was in a real one. Maybe these terrorists are getting smarter. I don't like the idea of that.

bob (the original bob)November 1, 2010 7:29 AM

So how much intel does it take to be suspicious when someone (probably a muslim?) in Yemen sends a parcel to a synagogue in the US? I would think an Israeli sending something to Iran would generate similar raised eyebrows, unless the people accepting the parcel were sympathetic to the cause?

And the news media (at least at one snapshot in time) were saying that the crew members had discovered the device and that it had a radiological component. Cool, the copilot goes through the hold during flight with a Geiger counter? That must be fun to do in turbulence. If they dont complete the sweep during the scheduled flight, do they go into a holding pattern while they do it?

And the likelihood of any bomb going off at a meaningful predetermined place based on timing (with or without pressure detection) of when the aircraft is SUPPOSED to be someplace is going to make a WWII V1 (the "buzz bomb"; targeting error was something like plus or minus 30 miles - on a 100 mile trip) look like a cruise missile (I mean a modern computer-controlled one, one could argue the V1 already was a cruise missile) by comparison. Most big airports have multiple runways and the choice of which one you take off from is basically random and the departure procedures are designed to make you take radically differing paths leaving the area. And that's assuming you properly guessed which direction the wind was blowing.

@Andrew: "...If you're a real terrorist you wouldn't do an attack the same week as someone who was trying to convince the public the government security strategy at airports are redundant...." - that is EXACTLY when you would do it, if it was security theater that pissed away tons of resources with little actual security gained - it uses your enemy's strength against themselves (Sun Tzu).

Are you guys aware that a nutso crewmember deadheading on FedEx Flt 705 already back in 1994 (note pre-11/9) tried to take it over and crash it on purpose a few years ago? The crew fought him off (stipulated they had no choice) but took permanent debilitating damage to themselves (for which FedEx thanked them by telling them not to let the doorhandle hit them on the ass as it shoved them out without so much as a box of candy) for the $100,000,000,000.00+ in damages FedEx would have been liable for had he succeeded.

GweihirNovember 1, 2010 7:35 AM

@whirl: Simple: Airplane phones or possible a cell phone repeater in the cabin. Both do not work for the cargo hold. Both do provide an antenna _outside_ of the aircraft body.

@Peter Maxwell: If the cake covering had holes, then the cell-signal gets through. These holes need not be large. However, aircraft do not have holes and aircraft cargo containers to not either. And they are fast moving and a long way from the next cell towers. All in itself already enough to prevent connections. Please do a bit of research.

As to the fireball, you are missing the point entirely: A fireball in the sky may be spectacular, it does however do zero damage on the ground, because it never gets there.

Sorry, nothing you list is even moderately convincing. You are blowing up badly researched ''facts'', with your own unfounded extrapolations. There is actually no reason why ''300 Tons of airplane fragments'' need to kill anybody on the ground, even in a densly populated area, and the evidence strongly suggests that airplanes blown up in the sky do not kill many people on the ground. That is a fact. Your blowing up the facts is pure speculation. If you insist on being afraid, be my guest, though.

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 7:42 AM

Just saw this in the NYTimes article;
"Michael D. Whatley, a partner at HBW Resources, which is a consulting firm for the Air Cargo Security Alliance, an organization that represents freight forwarders, said that there is no way to force American standards on other countries loading cargo bound for the United States."

There's some misunderstanding here - usually, airport and airfreight security policies are at a much higher standard outside the US. European countries, for example (as in EU and EEC), does screen 100% of air cargo, whether it's going on passenger planes or not. If it isn't screened, it won't even enter an airport.

That said, I can't speak for Yemen, but this might actually be one of the reasons why at least one package was intercepted in the UK. I highly doubt Bruce's wild admiration for intelligence bureaus...

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 7:49 AM

@Gweihir;
Maybe you should take a look at those Lockerbie-pictures.
A plane coming down like that, after a bomb, can set fires, causing damage that way, and the Lockerbie-plane apparently created a crater comparable to a V2 rocket...

Anyway, a badly damaged plane coming down can cause quite the fireball on the ground too. Take a look at this:
http://www.robert-stetter.de/Ramstein/pics/...

There's your evidence that aircraft coming down and fuel fires can kill people on the ground - you say you have evidence to the contrary? Bring it then.

Clive RobinsonNovember 1, 2010 8:17 AM

@ Bruce,

You will be glad to hear another airline chief Exec has come out and said that the majority of the security measures the public get subjected to are pointles (specificaly taking away bottles of water).

The Exec is the owner of Ryan Air and is not known for softselling a point in diplomatic speach ;)

He also said the latest measures for cargo would be totaly ineffective, and pointed out that European carriers unlike those of the US have not had a terrorist incident in over 20 years, and appeared to attributed this to a more dilligent attitude to security.

So what's the betting we get another airline scare in the next 14 days?

I'm sure some of this blogs readers would offer less than even odds ;)

Clive RobinsonNovember 1, 2010 8:42 AM

@ Shadowfirebird,

"-- then this is a new and disturbing development: terrorists actually trying to scare people instead of just making a big bang."

I think (and have said this on this blog a number of times) this is exactly what "Capt Underpants" and "Corp Hotfoot" where all about.

That is they are "rally round the flag" operations carried out by people who lets be honest where more of a danger to the organisations than they where to the general public.

There are several big advantages to such failures.

The first is no "women and children" get killed that would lose support from those in the muslim community.

The second is the enormous economic strain it puts on the west.

The third is it encorages the more usefull converts to become insurgents and go fight the US on the ground where they are badly exposed.

The fourth is it keeps the troops of "the great satan" on the ground on the battlefield of choice of the various Muslim factions.

And the fith is such pointless missions are a way to dispose of those who due to their ineptness and zeal are a real danger to the organisations.

A new element in this particular attack is that the real perps (who ever they maybe) have apparently used identity theft to setup the female student...

It appears (acording to the press) she has a very reliable alibi in that she was on campus on the day the packages were sent and seen by many who know her personaly. Secondly the person who witnessed the woman who signed the packages in says the student is most definatly not the person who signed her name on the documents...

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 8:51 AM

@Clive;

Sometimes I wonder what would make people happier; terrorists succeeding in carrying out their plots (so they can rave about security not being tight enough) or not having any successful terrorism incidents...

Also, Michael O'Leary knows what about security? From what I know, he's got a bachelor's in Business Studies, and has (for some reason) studied Irish tax legislation.
And now he's the boss of one of the world's most hated airlines. Yeah. We should probably listen to him in security matters.
Or not.

Clive RobinsonNovember 1, 2010 8:55 AM

@ Bruce,

AND It's not just the cargo we need to watch....

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/...

Is a story about a bomb found in a long stay carpark at Belfast International, amazingly it appears to have been there about a year!!! and was only discovered because the vehicle was about to be towed away...

The car park is operated by a private contractor and apparently they cannot say just how long the car has been there because the parking space was not pre-booked.

As is often said "You couldn't make it up".

Imperfect CitizenNovember 1, 2010 11:07 AM

I wish the intelligence gatherers would communicate with each other instead of playing need to know turf games.

GweihirNovember 1, 2010 11:11 AM

@SnallaBolaget: Ramstein was low-flying fighter planes colliding in mid-air and crowded spectators area immediately below. Not even worth any further comment.

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 2:17 PM

@Gweihir;
Well, that is Ramstein all right, and those are low flying fighter planes, but you're kinda shooting yourself in the leg by pointing that out - everyone knows that those planes carry a whole heck of a lot less fuel than a commercial airliner, and if that fuel doesn't burn up before the plane hits the ground (actually, it's very likely that a lot of it will just stay where it is unless the tanks, a.k.a. the wings of the plane are destroyed by a blast, which in turn is unlikely), then you're going to have a big ol' ball of fire.
Right there. On the ground.
Where there's people. Who are flammable.
What is it you don't understand?

Doug CoulterNovember 1, 2010 2:19 PM

@IntelVet

As a sometimes HE-chemist, I'd hate to be tasked with detecting PETN post explosion/burn. Penta-Erthrite Tetra-Nitrate is roughly analogous to the other nitric esters, essentially a nitrated alcohol (ok oversimplified for non chemists). Like nitroglycerin, methyl nitrate, glycol nitrate.

Everything in it burns, explodes, decomposes, and the results are nitrogen, water, CO2 pretty much, all of which (including any nitrites and nitrates) would normally be present after a fire anyway, considering what else would probably be there to burn. Most other HE would leave more traces of what it was, particularly the aromatic based ones.

PETN's probably one of the hardest to detect pre-explosion of the more conventional explosives as well, as it doesn't fume much into the air etc.

But the signature of it going bang is pretty obvious, as the shock wave is so intense (assuming it was packed to the correct density and set off properly, which density by the way is what they look for in some explosives detectors, around 1.3 is optimum for many types of HE) that the effects are a lot different than those of a collision with the ground and so on. It's one of the high-shock/low-heave explosives and even ductile things shatter into tiny bits when it goes off nearby, not torn like in a slowly applied force due to a crash.

So a diligent investigation would know there was a high explosive involved, but may not be able to tell the exact chemistry (despite what some in law enforcement have claimed with a horrible track record for accuracy). That may be all that's needed anyway. Do you really care what it was most of the time? I kind of doubt it, and it's too late after the fact.

What amazes me as a pyro-hobbiest for about as long as Bruce has picked locks is -- how amateur the "terrorists" are at all this, actually. They are barely at teeny-bomber 101 in the "art". There's a lot of stuff harder to detect that can be made and used with good effectiveness, no mention of it ever, and I'm not going to start myself, either. A lot of now-gone pyro websites used to describe far more devious things that would work.

The level we see is about at the imagination level of a poorly-informed TSA/FBI agent, hmmm.

I guess we're all kind of lucky that both are not too bright in this, maybe we can convince them to play with one another and leave the rest of us alone, kind of like the cops and bad guys do in most small towns. Too bad we wind up funding both.


GarethNovember 1, 2010 2:33 PM

@Clive

"Even on a 1 day delivery I doubt that the phone would still be functional by the time it got to it's destination due to it trying to re-register with a cell site whilst in what is effectivly a Faraday cage, unless it had additional batteries to keep it going or a timer to only power the phone up an hour or so before it's due delivery time."

A mobile 'phone won't transmit in the absence of a base station signal. GSM uses the "SCH" (Synchronisation Channel / "Lighthouse"). A Faraday cage would of course block the mobile from receiving this signal thereby preventing it from transmitting. Other sensible and obvious good engineering practices would also prevent this from happening.

I believe the timer function on mobile 'phones was used to trigger the Madrid train bombs.

GarethNovember 1, 2010 2:54 PM

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/...

"Toner cartridges larger than 500g (17.6oz) will also be banned from hand baggage on flights departing from the UK and also on cargo flights unless they originate from a regular shipper with security arrangements approved by the Department for Transport"

That's another one of yesterday's threats countered.

It seems to me that the governments' responses to thwarted terrorist threats are exactly the same as they would be for a successful attack.

anonNovember 1, 2010 3:24 PM

when airports and planes are the "secure" places with all the regulating and technique, why is aviation still one big target?
In the middle east targets are different.
Is it just that the terrorist can board a plain in nearly every part of the world and his weapon flys him to his target? Is it the fear of traveling to the US and and being arrested before the attack took place?

Is it (terror-)economic thinking? do they just don't care? or is there a fixation on planes?
Is it a trade off between different attacks: 1. boarding the plain: security check in country X, 2. small bomb: big bang, 3. no need for security check in the USA 4. big public fear....

alternative target: a stadium, a historical monument...

"we" must understand why terrorists are using certain techniques, why they choose certain targets, why certain weapons.

in addition to intelligence and investigation "we" should secure the popular targets, "we" should observe the popular attack vectors, and "we" should re-adjust all that in a continuous, fluid process.

aviation security is working (maybe not 100%), terroists are still using plains and they fail.
It is not a guarantee that nothing will happen. It's a trade off, it's a negotiation, and it needs readjustment again and again and again.

Peter MaxwellNovember 1, 2010 8:25 PM

@Gweihir at November 1, 2010 7:35 AM

"If the cake covering had holes, then the cell-signal gets through. These holes need not be large. However, aircraft do not have holes and aircraft cargo containers to not either. And they are fast moving and a long way from the next cell towers. All in itself already enough to prevent connections. Please do a bit of research."

Perhaps that's why my original suggestions were (i) a simple timer & (ii) detecting changes in interference from the engines.

My comment about the cake tin was merely a nice and non-threatening way of saying that preventing mobile phone signals is more difficult than you would anticipate; curiously enough I have actually had a small amount of industrial and academic experience with this sort of thing, but hey - who's bothered about that nonsense.


"As to the fireball, you are missing the point entirely: A fireball in the sky may be spectacular, it does however do zero damage on the ground, because it never gets there."

So you're saying gravity ceases to have effect once a bomb explodes on the plane?


"There is actually no reason why '300 Tons of airplane fragments' need to kill anybody on the ground, even in a densly populated area, and the evidence strongly suggests that airplanes blown up in the sky do not kill many people on the ground. That is a fact. Your blowing up the facts is pure speculation."

What evidence? Please feel free to cite references as I have done.

And it is not speculation, I've already given you two concrete examples; the 9/11 attacks caused the largest number of fatalities in a terrorist attack of this nature, and the majority of the people killed were on the ground.

Despite this, I shall give some more examples of what happens when planes hit the ground in an unplanned manner not related to terrorism:


Sabena Flight 548 - 1 person killed on ground when the plane crashed into a field.

Delta Air Lines Flight 191 (2nd August 1985) - 1 person killed on ground as the plane hit a motorway.

Indeonesia 2009 - 2 killed on ground, again plane landed in a field, c.f. http://www.reuters.com/article/...

Brazil 2007 - 15 people on ground killed when plane fails to take off and hits petrol station, c.f. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-469152/...

El Al Flight, 4 October 1992 - killed 39 people on the ground as a *cargo* plane hit an apartment block.

The incidents with the lower fatality counts are generally in cases when the plane has landed in an area where there are few people to kill in the first place. When a plane lands somewhere built up, e.g. the El Al flight, many more people die.

Are you still trying to sustain the premise that planes falling out the sky do not kill people on the ground?


"If you insist on being afraid, be my guest, though."

I suggest you keep to the debate at hand and refrain from making unfounded comments about my disposition.


Peter MaxwellNovember 1, 2010 8:37 PM

@Clive Robinson at November 1, 2010 8:55 AM

"Is a story about a bomb found in a long stay carpark at Belfast International, amazingly it appears to have been there about a year!!! and was only discovered because the vehicle was about to be towed away..."


I've now got images of a car thief getting stopped by the Police/Garda and having to explain why he's driving a car filled with explosives... "it's not mine, honestly officer!"

Jonathan WilsonNovember 1, 2010 11:56 PM

What I want to know is why terrorists havent tried things other than attacking airplanes.

A terrorist blowing themselves up inside a Wal-Mart (with matching threats to repeat the excercise in stores nationwide) would cause a lot more fear (and economic damage) than any airplane attack.

Peter MaxwellNovember 2, 2010 12:50 AM

@Jonathan Wilson at November 1, 2010 11:56 PM

"What I want to know is why terrorists havent tried things other than attacking airplanes."

The IRA were somewhat prolific with things like car bombs, bombs on railway tracks and in city centres. As far as I know, the "real ira" had fired a RPG at the SIS building in London in 2000.

Clive RobinsonNovember 2, 2010 1:43 AM

@ Peter Maxwell,

"I've now got images of a car thief getting stopped by the Police/Garda and having to explain why he's driving a car filled with explosives... "it's no mine, honestly officer!"

As some people have observed in the past "you couldn't make it up" well...

Something along those lines actually happened back in the days the Provisonal Irish Republican Army (PIRA) where doing their "mainland campaign" of putting bombs in places in the UK mainland getting on for twenty years ago [for those not living in Britain, Northern Ireland is not part of the "mainland" of the "United Kingdom of Britain" which comprises England, Wales and Scotland].

Well there was a music festival heald in the "Riverside Center" in Reading England called "World of Music and Dance" or "Womad" which IIRC was the brain child of Peter Gabriel.

Well I was on my way to this festival with a couple of friends (Hi to Jean and "Little Clive" from "Big Clive") in their car when the area a mile or so around Reading Railway Station was shut down and cordend of by the Police.

The reason was a "known" local thief had nicked an "unatended bag" from the station concorse and having carted it off to a quiet spot he opened his ill gotten gains to look for valuables and instead saw a bomb. He was so panicked that when he called it in he effectivly admited who he was and what he had done...

So yes these things improbable as they sound do happen, oddly more often than you would expect at first thought as there are other cases of "bombs being nicked" by likley lads.

This however not the only time a PIRA bomb and my path has crossed. On another occasion I was cycling to work in Chiswick S.W. London and just before the "M4 roundabout" just outside the old BT tellephone exchange (Wheatson Bridge House) I was cut up badly by a "London Cab" in the bus lane.

Well it caused me to notice that it was "unlicesed" and therefor should not have been in the bus lane and was thus breaking the law.

Well the cab got caught in traffic a few yards further on so I thought I would "remonstrate" with the driver and get my own back. So I cycled in front of the cab and stoped with my bike against the flow of traffic and put my foot on the ground and started to stare him out while the rest of the trafic moved off.

I noticed that the driver looked "strange" he had a greyish "sherlock holmes" style cape on and a matching Edwardian style cycling cap and very large glasses that appeared to be made of plain glass and rather odd gloves on his hands, all you could realy see of him was his rat like face. Well we sat there for a while staring at each other and I eventually moved off to get to work on time having delayed him a couple of minutes. and as I thought taught him a lesson.

At work I told some of my colleagues (Hi to Rauf & Steve) about the incident because the driver just looked so odd. We joked about him being some "nutter" or "Walter Mitty" type and I talked about reporting him to the police as I'd noted the registration number. They basicaly said I'd be wasting my time so I didn't bother

A littl later we heard about a large PIRA bomb exploding at BBC Television House and we did the usual "thank god it's not me" and got on with our work.

A little while the police revealed details of the bomb and mentioned it was a "car bomb" that had been parked up in the Beeb car park that had exploded and released details of the vehical it was the same unlicensed cab...

As Steve later commented I'd been lucky the guy could have been armed and panicked and shot me or detonated the bomb as I was staring him out.

All in all not one of my better days.

Clive RobinsonNovember 2, 2010 2:10 AM

@ Gareth,

"A mobile 'phone won't transmit in the absence of a base station signal. GSM uses the "SCH"(Synchronisation Channel / "Lighthouse"). A Faraday cage would of course block the mobile from receiving this signal thereby preventing it from transmitting. Other sensible and obvious good engineering practices would also prevent this from happening."

It was not the "transmitting" asspect I was refering to. The "lighthouse" can be on a number of channels in a number of bands. The process of scanning to find the reciever across the channels and bands to find it uses more battery power than just "control channel station keeping" which it would normaly do when in an active cell.

Some phones are not very good in this aspect and can use almost as much power as when in "talk mode" on the lower TX power settings. The "talk time" given by most mobile phone providers is usually bassed on the lowest power in talk time and it is usually given as being just a few hours and nothing like a day.

Further I was assuming that any phone used is not likley to be new as it would be too traceable, thus black market second hand or stolen. And as many phone users know the talk time on a mobile phone can drop from an hour or so when new to maybe 20mins or so after a year (depends on the phone manufacturer and the battery manufacturer). Further as is now known contary to EU and other jurisdictions legislation the phone manufacturers chip their "own brand" batteries and like ink jet printer manufactures they reduce the "user experiance" with other baterries in order to protect a lucrative market.

However as I have subsiquently seen in todays papers one of the devices had a phone that was traceable to the female student who's identity the bombers where using (so called ID theft), but it may have been done as a "setup"). So my assumption about it not being a new phone due to the tracability asspect may not apply in this case. That is the phone may have been deliberatly purchased in her name very recently.

Clive RobinsonNovember 2, 2010 2:22 AM

@ Doug,

"I guess we're all kind of lucky that both are not too bright in this, maybe we can convince them to play with one another and leave the rest of us alone kind of like the cops and bad guys do in most small towns. Too bad we wind up funding both"

Saddly even if they did just "play with themselves" as with the gun asspects relating to drug / gang crime etc there is likley to be crossfire in wich innoccent bystanders get caught.

I'm also old enough to remember the pre 9/11 days when "New York's Finest" and the Mayor where being regularly casticated in the press. One such article alledged that many of the NYPD where so fat and unfit that they where just shoting those running away from them rather than give chase.

As was later pointed out 9/11 was "good for them" as it turned the public view point from "sinners to saints", which unfortunatly appeares to have encoraged the previous "sinning" pehaviour even more, only nobody dared speek about it.

hwKeitelNovember 2, 2010 2:33 AM

@Peter Maxwell

I think the IRA is a different story because it is much easier to trevel from Ireland to London, especially when you look like everone else.

If the IRA terrorists had to travel around the world, they may have chosen other plots.

But switching from passenger planes to cargo is something to think about. Maybe terrorists have realised that the original idea is too hard to accomplish (some plots should succeed, to keep morality high under your terror friends).
So, a (Darwin like) development of the basic idea is a normal step.
Now security has to adapt (in a Darwin like way).

DaveNovember 2, 2010 5:22 AM

From the BBC web site this morning. Talk about pointless targetting of yesterdays threat!!!!

"Britain's authorities have said that the device was probably intended to detonate mid-air and later announced a review of all aspects of the UK's air freight security, as well as restrictions on the transportation of ink cartridges."

anonNovember 2, 2010 7:06 AM

@Peter Maxwell
Did you note my link to the 1960 collision of 2 aircraft over NYC? 6 people on the ground were killed.

Also, of your examples, the most killed (excluding 9/11) was 39. Pretty small for crashing into a town.

I discount 9/11 because that only worked with a complacent passenger complement. Now all the passengers would attack the attackers, knowing they'll die anyway. It was a one-time event.

I see the UK is banning shipping printer cartridges from Yemen to UK. Security theater anyone?

SnallaBolagetNovember 2, 2010 8:06 AM

I'm just thinking... since intelligence agencies supposedly were "on to" these packages "for days", how did they even get on the planes?
Shouldn't these glorious agencies (if beating terrorism by intelligence gathering is so good) have prevented them from getting inside that fuselage?

Well. Maybe it's just me, but I think having x-ray scanning that actually shows the bomb before it's on the plane is better than having a plane blow up and the CIA going "Uh, yeah, we've known about that plot for days now."

Clive RobinsonNovember 2, 2010 8:49 AM

@ SnallaBolaget,

"Maybe it's just me, but I think having x-ray scanning that actually shows the bomb before it' on the plane is better than having a plane blow up and the CIA going "Uh, yeah, we've known about that plot for days now"

If X-Raying was reliable then many would agree with you, but unfortunatly it's not very reliable at all when it comes to explosives or many other things.

Further as has been shown over and over with tests that even when things like hand guns in luggage show up on a scanner the operator can miss it entirely due to fatigue etc.

TomNovember 2, 2010 8:52 AM

I get a cellphone signal on an aircraft, but only when under a certain altitude (obviously not at 30,000ft) so only during take off or landing.

Surely it is feasible to make a cellphone trigger a bomb when a cargo plane is coming in to land, i.e. when it's over a populated area?

Peter MaxwellNovember 2, 2010 9:42 AM

@Clive Robinson at November 2, 2010 1:43 AM

"The reason was a "known" local thief had nicked an "unatended bag" from the station concorse and having carted it off to a quiet spot he opened his ill gotten gains to look for valuables and instead saw a bomb."

Now that, I like :-)

----------

@hwKeitel at November 2, 2010 2:33 AM

"I think the IRA is a different story because it is much easier to trevel from Ireland to London, especially when you look like everone else."

Agreed. I was just responding to Jonathan Wilson's post with an example of where terrorists have used more obvious means than attacking airplanes.

-------

@anon at November 2, 2010 7:06 AM

"Did you note my link to the 1960 collision of 2 aircraft over NYC?"

I've just looked at it there and have to say it seems that there was at least some luck in that there weren't more killed on the ground. From http://www.nyc-architecture.com/PS/PS.htm it seems one plane came down into a former military airport, and the other in the middle of a street. The timing was also slightly fortuitous as it was 10:30 in the morning when most people would have been at work rather than at home. Looking at the pictures, it doesn't seem the plane hit any of the buildings?


"Also, of your examples, the most killed (excluding 9/11) was 39. Pretty small for crashing into a town."

What would your opinion be of a terrorist attack in which 39 people were killed? i.e. do you think 39 deaths is serious, if not what is a noteworthy number for you?

In the July 2005 bombings in London some 52 people were killed, not a dissimilar death toll.

In 1996, the IRA detonated half a ton of ammonium nitrate in London's Docklands killing 2 people. Dropping a plane would require what, maximum 5kg high explosive?

Perhaps a little perspective is required.

"I discount 9/11 because that only worked with a complacent passenger complement. Now all the passengers would attack the attackers, knowing they'll die anyway. It was a one-time event."

A compliant passenger complement is not something a terrorist would have to worry about with cargo bombs: all they have to worry about is ensuring the bombs go off after a suitable delay, and getting them onto enough planes that probability favours them enough.

"I see the UK is banning shipping printer cartridges from Yemen to UK. Security theater anyone?"

Yes, banning only printer cartridges from one country does sound rather obtuse.

GweihirNovember 2, 2010 10:10 AM

@SnallaBolaget: What you do not understand, is the physics involved. Ramstein, is atypical in that 1) the fuel managed to get to the ground, because they were flying so low (50m) and 2) that there were a lot of people completely unprotected (no roofs) in the area were the fuel went down. Both conditions do not arise when blowing up a commercial airliner, unless it is flown into a group of people under pilot control. Air fuel evaporates extremely quickly and for this reason does typically not reach the ground. Even more so when somewhat dispersed by an explosion. If it burns, it does reach the ground even less.

I do understand what you are tying to say, but your Airplane--explosion--fire--mass-death meme does not cut it for people on the ground. A little more insight is required and it reveals that the situation is far less dangerous than you believe.

That you, and others here, actually believe this is the worst danger in this scheme shows that this act of terror was quite successful. The worst danger and damage is done by the countermeasures (which are all for show only) and the caused disruption in air cargo transport.


@Peter Maxwell: I am saying that jet-fuel already evaporates very quickly, and that this happens even faster when being heated up, e.g. by burning. More so if dispersed by an explosion. It does not come down far, if at all. It is not at all comparable to water in this regard.

Incidentally, I never said anything about falling planes not killing people on the ground. I merely stated that the numbers are insignificant if a plane gets blown up. You are following a meme here, not looking hard cold, hard numbers. I do not need to cite anything, you and others here already have done that and all references show low numbers of casualties, especially when set into relation with probability of the event. A bomb is completely unsuitable to reliably get a plane to crash into something specific. A bomb is completely unsuitable to make an airplane fly at low altitude. And most targets, even in densely populated areas, will give you a

Side note: 9/11 does not qualify as "bomb on plane". Controlled flight of a commercial airplane into a building or large group of people (stadium) can cause tremendous loss of life, but that is a different threat.

As to cell-phones, hinting at some non-cited academic or industrial experience is just bad style. As in "shut up or I trod out my superior qualification".

@Tom: The signal you get comes through the windows. That is quite enough. Cargo containers and cargo airplanes may have the occasional window or hole, the only application I see is blowing up a plane on start or landing.

GweihirNovember 2, 2010 10:24 AM

"I see the UK is banning shipping printer cartridges from Yemen to UK. Security theater anyone?"

This is completely idiotic. The toner cartridge is plastic and can be easily and successfully inspected with x-rays. The reason these bombs made it reportedly through two x-ray inspections is the printer around them.

They need to make shipping everything with a larger metal content and some wiring in it illegal. Of course that would have a dramatic negative effect on commerce and will not happen. Hence, no, this particular "attack" (still not convinced it would have done real direct damage) would be repeated easily.

On the other hand, the shipments could have easily be detected by a simple plausibility check: A laser printer of the type shown weights about 10kg. Shipping 10kG from Jemen to the US costs 633USD according to the FedEx online calculator. This is something like 2-3 times the value of the printer and should have raised a red flag (maybe it did).

BF SkinnerNovember 2, 2010 10:50 AM

@Snallabolage " since intelligence agencies supposedly were "on to" these packages "for days", how did they even get on the planes? ...Shouldn't ... have prevented them from getting inside ...? "

I think you've put your finger on the central conflict of interest with treating terrorists as other than criminals.

A law enforcement officer's role is to detect and protect.

An intelligence officer has the range of choices of Detect, Deny, Exploit, or Destroy. Should they allow a criminal act to continue so that they can identify means, motives, and sources no matter the cost? Should they protect a villian who continues to do villianous stuff just for the information he can provide?


@Tom " it is feasible to make a cellphone trigger a bomb when a cargo plane is coming in to land, i.e. when it's over a populated area?"
Well yeah but if you know the flight route of a plane you can pretty much be certain that when they drop below a certain altitude they are on final approach and over a populated area. Likely why pressure triggers were used so much.

It would be nice if they gave us details so we could inform our discussion.
'Packed' doesn't tell me much. How much semtex could be put into a gutted toner catridge? 1 pound or 2? and Would that be enough to destroy enough control systems from the cargo hold to destroy a plane?

ZaphodNovember 2, 2010 11:03 AM

@Gweihir

Since on self certifies the cost of the contents, I doubt red flags would be raised.

It is, of course, a $3000 photo printer not a cheap inkjet Mr. UPS clerk.

Zaphod

Clive RobinsoNovember 2, 2010 11:08 AM

@ BF Skinner,

"...'Packed' doesn't tell me much. How much semtex could be put into a gutted toner catridge? 1 pound or 2? and Would that be enough to destroy enough control systems from the cargo hold to destroy a plane?"

According to one news paper report one was 400grams the other 700grams of PETN. And also said was sufficient to bring the aircraft down.

Now I'm not that up on the density of PETN but if we assume 1.5 then the volume is down around 250-500cc.

BF SkinnerNovember 2, 2010 11:29 AM

@Mongo "We're an economy driven by one- and two-day delivery. Imagine if FedEx, UPS, and USPS had to suspend air cargo operations until the security issues were resolved."

Well let's see how much shipping slows when FedEx raises it's rates between 40 and 50%.

ScaredNovember 2, 2010 4:34 PM

The Ministry of Truth couldn't have written it better:

http://www.reuters.com/article/...

"(Reuters) - Airline passengers in New York welcomed stricter safety rules that went into effect on Monday, especially in light of last week's interception of U.S.-bound parcel bombs sent from Yemen.

The rules, originally prompted by the September 11, 2001 attacks but delayed by privacy concerns, require airlines to collect a passenger's full name, date of birth and gender on all flights to and from U.S. airports.

The program is aimed at ensuring that passengers on the "no fly" list are kept off planes -- and that innocents are not wrongly barred from flying. It is meant to prevent airlines from issuing a boarding pass if the information is incomplete.

Passengers interviewed at New York's John F. Kennedy airport overwhelmingly supported the rules, which major airlines had largely been implementing anyway before their formal introduction.

"What happened last week shows that terrorists would still like to attack an airplane. It's scary, so whatever precautions they feel like taking, I'm OK with," said Lawrence Varner, 75, a retiree who had just arrived from Tennessee."

Peter MaxwellNovember 2, 2010 5:37 PM

@Gweihir at November 2, 2010 10:10 AM

"I am saying that jet-fuel already evaporates very quickly, and that this happens even faster when being heated up, e.g. by burning. More so if dispersed by an explosion. It does not come down far, if at all."

It's about time you started citing some evidence - relevant sources please.


"Incidentally, I never said anything about falling planes not killing people on the ground. I merely stated that the numbers are insignificant if a plane gets blown up. You are following a meme here, not looking hard cold, hard numbers."

That assertion is wrong. I have compiled a list of relevant ground fatalities from aviation disasters in the last thirty years (included at end). It appears the incidents in which deaths occur on the ground are generally associated with take off, which is the timeframe we are considering for a terrorist bomb to go off. By number dead the worst incidents have fatalities of 225, 75, 45 and 44 respectively - hardly trivial, and most definitely significant.

Just so we are taking on the same page here - what do you consider is a significant number of deaths in this respect? 10? 20? 50?


"Side note: 9/11 does not qualify as "bomb on plane". Controlled flight of a commercial airplane into a building or large group of people (stadium) can cause tremendous loss of life, but that is a different threat."

Does it really matter how the plane ends up hitting a building? Can you please explain why you think it is a different threat?


"As to cell-phones, hinting at some non-cited academic or industrial experience is just bad style. As in "shut up or I trod out my superior qualification""

So your position is that if someone has had experience in a certain area, it is poor form to say so? Interesting.

Anyway, some data...

Relevant incidents from 1980-2010, source http://planecrashinfo.com/database.htm ...

January 08, 1996 : Kinshasa, Zaire : Antonov AN-32B : Cargo plane crashed into market square on take off : 225 official ground fatalities although may be as high as 350

May 04, 2002 : Kano, Nigeria : BAC One-Eleven 525FT : Shortly after take off, crashed into 2 mosques, school & houses in densly populated area : 75 deaths on the ground

September 03, 1989 : Near Havana, Cuba : Ilyushin IL-62M : Crashed into navigational tower & houses on take off : 45 deaths on the ground

December 05, 1997 : Irkutsk-2, Russia : Antonov AN-124-100 : Crashed into residential area 20 secs after take off : 44 deaths on the ground

March 27, 1986 : Bangui, Central African Republic : Jet fighter crashed into school shortly after take off : 35 deaths

October 04, 2007 : Kinshasa, DR Congo : Antonov AN-26 : Engine failue on take off, crashed into local neighbourhood : 30 deaths on the ground

May 05, 1990 : Guatamala City , Guatemala : Douglas DC-6BF : Engine failure on take off, crashed into houses 8k SE of airport : 24 dead on ground

December 14, 1983 : Near Medellin, Colombia : Boeing 707-373C : Hit power lines on take off & crashed into buildings : 22 deaths on ground

December 06, 2005 : Tehran, Iran : Lockheed C-130B Hercules : Crashed into apartment building after take off : 14 deaths on the ground

February 02, 1999 : Luanda, Angola : Antonov AN-12 : Engine trouble shortly after take off, crashed on attempted landing destroying five houses : 13 deaths on the ground

November 29, 2003 : Boende, Congo : Antonov AN-26 : Tire blow out during take off, crashed into small market square : 13 deaths on the ground

December 21, 1988 : Lockerbie, Scotland : Boeing B-747-121A : Bomb over Lockerbie : 11 deaths on ground

February 06, 1992 : Evansville, Indiana : Lockheed C-130B : Hit restaurant and motel shortly after take off : 11 ground deaths

August 31, 1999 : Buenos Aires, Argentina : Boeing B-737-204C : Botched take off, skidded off run way : 10 deaths on ground

March 18, 1999 : Near Tame, Colombia : Crashed into hill : 8 ground deaths

February 16, 1998 : Taipei, Taiwan : Crashed into residental neighbourhood on landing : 7 deaths on the ground

June 22, 2000 : Shitai, China : Xian Yunshuji Y-7-100C : When landing was hit by lightening, hit farmhouse and dike : 7 ground fatalities

April 16, 1992 : Nairobi, Kenya : de Havilland DHC-5 Buffalo : Engine failure during take off : 6 dead on ground

November 04, 2007 : Sao Paulo - Rio de Janeiro : Learjet 35A : Error in take off : 6 deaths on the ground

July 17, 2000 : Patna, India : Boeing B-737-2A8 Advanced : Pilot error on landing, crashed into houses and burst into flames : 5 deaths on ground

November 12, 2001 : Belle Harbor, Queens, New York : Airbus A-300-605R : Shortly after take off crashed into residential neighbourhood : 5 deaths on ground

GweihirNovember 2, 2010 7:14 PM

@Peter Maxwell:
"Does it really matter how the plane ends up hitting a building? Can you please explain why you think it is a different threat?"

It matters very much. If you are not very clear about the reasons for something, any reasonable risk analysis becomes impossible. Which means that all your quotations are meaningless for the discussion at hand.

Maybe look at the top of this discussion, and notice it is about Bombs in cargo airplanes?

As to evaporation, this is a very old fact. Here is a reference with experimental data(the abstract says it all, full article is $29.95): http://www.stormingmedia.us/70/7039/A703901.html
Most of the literature will not even be online, because it is so old.

@Zaphod:
Hmm. I think you are perfectly right.

Peter MaxwellNovember 3, 2010 2:15 AM

@Gweihir at November 2, 2010 7:14 PM

"It matters very much. If you are not very clear about the reasons for something, any reasonable risk analysis becomes impossible."

I did not ask about risk analysis, my question was focused on the end result. I shall phrase it more accurately: in your opinion, if a plane crashes into a building does the number of fatalities change based on whether that plane was directed by hijackers or was disabled by a bomb?


"Which means that all your quotations are meaningless for the discussion at hand."

Which specific quotations are you referring to?


"Maybe look at the top of this discussion, and notice it is about Bombs in cargo airplanes?"

Yes, don't worry, I understood that.


"As to evaporation, this is a very old fact. Here is a reference with experimental data...Most of the literature will not even be online, because it is so old."

Yes, I agree at more than about 600m plane fuel dumps evaporate and there is little trace of fuel at ground level. That is however not the situation we are considering here.

If a bomb goes off either: (i) the bomb breaches the integrity of the fuel tanks and causes the fuel to ignite, or (ii) the bomb does not breach the fuel tanks in which case no fuel is ejected/dumped in the atmosphere.

Now, if it is (i) then one has to consider quite a complex model to determine if that fuel is still burning when the plane hits the ground. I would assume the fuel would still be burning by the time the plane hits the ground but at this moment, I cannot find any sources/video footage to determine as such - maybe you can?

If it is (ii) then either (a) the fuel tanks remain intact when the plane hits the ground and there is no fire, or (b) the fuel tanks are breached when the plane hits the ground and the fuel ignites.

The Fairchild crash illustrates an example of (ii)(b) and looks rather reminiscent of a fireball to me...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJb08ZzejAA



Despite asking twice, you've still not given me an answer as to how many fatalities you consider significant in this respect - perhaps you could enlighten us as to how many people on the ground need to be killed by a crashing plane to qualify as significant to you?


This discussion seems to be going round the houses and avoiding the real issues. So here goes:

i) do you consider it possible for a bomb placed in the cargo hold of an plane to detonate and force a crash landing;

ii) assuming (i), do you consider it possible for a terrorist to time such an explosion to be within 2 mins of the plane taking off (by any means, mobile/timer/pressure guage/whatever);

iii) do you accept from the data I have quoted that a plane hitting the ground in a populated area can cause significant fatalities.

mikeNovember 5, 2010 10:55 AM

Here's the solution to all the controversy over full-body scanners at the
Airports:

Have a booth that you can step into that will not x-ray you, but will
Detonate any explosive device you may have on your body. It would be a
Win-win for everyone, and there would be none of this crap about racial
Profiling and this method would eliminate a long and expensive trial.

Justice would
Be quick and swift.

This is so simple that it's brilliant. I can see it now. You're in the
Airport terminal and you hear a muffled explosion.

Shortly thereafter an announcement comes over the PA system, "Attention
Standby passengers. We now have a seat available on flight number 4665 ....
Paging maintenance. Shop Vac needed in booth number 4."

Now we only need one for cargo

Clive RobinsonNovember 6, 2010 3:35 AM

@ Mike,

+ several to you 8)

You caused me to laugh at the wrong moment thus causing a certain amount of collateral damage whilst I was eating my breakfast.

As a young friend of my son says of people that have earned his admiration "Hey, you is, one sick bro".

(apparently amongst the Ouff of today "sick" is the new "bad" ie it means better than good...)

RationalistNovember 6, 2010 10:16 AM

@ several conspiracy theorists:

Take a deep breath and step back for a moment. I can assure you that the American government barely notices when the chairman of BA speaks, and I rather doubt any shadowy TLAs have a "BA Desk" dedicated to monitoring and neutralizing his public utterances. He's just not that important.

Remember, correlation does not imply causation. (Unless you're going to tell me that the BA pilots' union is secretly backed by the CIA, too?)

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