Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


On Aviation Security

The evolution of threats is a continuous one. Over the last two centuries, the United States has seen the national threat change multiple times. With the strides in technologies, the rise of new leaders and the general globalization of the world communities, the dawn of the new century brought a sharp reminder that threats have an acute ability to reach around the world. This new threat is difficult to categorize at times; however, the mark it leaves is unmistakable.

After the attacks within America on 9/11, it was all too apparent that America was not ready for the latest threat. This scope of terrorism had never been seen before and not many were desirous of seeing it manifest again. The flurry of work to set up a new cabinet position, collect most of the agencies whose mission fell under the umbrella of homeland security and the passage of the PATRIOT Act came together in a relatively short amount of time; the effective tuning of each department is an ongoing process.

In an effort to show the variety of tactics that terrorists use to attempt attacks on the United States, two specific attacks will be discussed in the following pages. Though nearly a year separates these two foiled attacks, there are quite a few similarities that can be seen in both of them. Not only will the attempts themselves be looked at, but the lessons learned regarding homeland security.

The name Umar Farouk Adbulmatallab might not be familiar to most; however, his nickname, the “Underwear Bomber,” will more than likely live on for a while. Self identified as a member of an al-Qaeda back cell in Yemen, this aspiring terrorist attempted to ignite explosives hidden within his underwear on Christmas Day in 2009 (Carafano, 2011). Though the bomb did not go off, this potential tragedy came too close to being a success.

About a year later, Saudi Arabian intelligence sounded the alarm of potential packages being shipped to the United States from Yemen. Armed with the knowledge and tracking information, the packages containing printers were detained in the United Kingdom and in Dubai (Zuckerman, Bucci & Carfano, 2013). Though foiled, these bombs were headed to synagogues in the Chicago area. In this second case of bombs being shipped into the country from overseas, it would seem that terror groups believed they had found an exploitable loophole.

Of the many variables that comprise terror attacks, a few of the same points are seen. The first is the fact that these were international flights coming into the United States. Though TSA has issued certain guidelines towards security for those who board flights destined for the United States, the agency does not have jurisdiction to operate or dictate security operations internationally. Many airports do not have the ability to build the infrastructure needed to handle the needs of American security. Therefore, it becomes easier to attempt to get around security measures in such places and before the potential terrorist encounters them within America.

In the case of the Underwear Bomber, his actions proved that he was unwilling to deal with American security. As the plane began to descend over Detroit, he attempted to light his explosives. The failure of a successful detonation was attributed to the efforts of fellow passengers. It would seem that the weak link in the chain of a successful bombing was the passengers stopping the terrorist from fulfilling his mission.

Though many countries have taken steps to ensure stricter levels of security on passenger flights coming into the country, the same cannot be said of cargo planes. In August 2007, President Bush “signed a law requiring that by August 2010, all cargo transported on domestic flights and on passenger aircraft flying into the U.S. pass through security screening” (Greenemeier, 2010). However, this does not cover cargo flights originating internationally. Thus, cargo flights would seem to address more than one of the issues against which terrorists must battle.

In November 2010 two packages were deposited on two cargo planes headed to the United States. The weak links of the terrorists – fellow passengers and security screening – had been discarded. The bomb materials, placed inside toner cartridges, were placed on board aircraft. Their destination was to synagogues in the Chicago area. Speaking on the incident, the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, Frank Cilluffo stated, “It is evident that had we not had the intelligence, our security countermeasures would not have identified these improvised explosive devices” (Bennett, 2010). Indeed, the intelligence came by way of Saudi Arabian intelligence services.

The interception of the packages in United Kingdom and Dubai would not have been possible without strong cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and international law enforcement agencies. Not only did the DHS need to have strong relations with Saudi Arabian intelligence, but also with each of the nations where the packages were intercepted. Further, the ability to find and intercept the packages speak to the high technology that some couriers use to track each package that they ship.

Intelligence was the critical element in stopping the toner cartridge bombs. The general public might never be aware of the intelligence failure that could have stopped the Underwear Bomber from getting into American airspace. The fact remains that the stronger intelligence the DHS is able to maintain both domestically and internationally, the quicker it can turn the tide on a terrorist plot.

Without international cooperation from both law enforcement agencies and private companies, the DHS is powerless to stop threats from reaching American soil. American agencies who are tasked with homeland security must utilize the tools that are given them. This includes a strong working rapport with international intelligence agencies. Their ability to share information that could stop the next plot will not happen without a strong relationship.

Lastly, such foiled plots serve as a reminder of the dangers that the United States is still facing. It takes creativity and determination to find such plots. Unfortunately, the enemy has demonstrated that they also carry these traits. All members of America’s national security defense must continue to work closely together to thwart such attempts.




Bennett, B. (2010, November 2). TSA to overhaul screening methods after bomb attack. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20101106102443/http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/sc-dc-1103-yemen-bombs-20101102,0,6222299.story

Carafano, J. J. (2011, October 12). What we’ve learned about terror trials from the Underwear Bomber. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2011/10/what-weve-learned-about-terror-trials-from-the-underwear-bomber?ac=1

Greenemeier, L. (2010, November 2). Exposing the weakest link: as airline passenger security tightens, bombers target cargo holds. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/aircraft-cargo-bomb-security/

Zuckerman, J., Bucci, S. P., & Carfano, J. J. (2013, July 31). 60 terrorist plots since 9/11: continued lessons in domestic counterterrorism. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2013/7/60-terrorist-plots-since-911-continued-lessons-in-domestic-counterterrorism?ac=1

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