Foiled ISIS plot triggers stricter TSA air cargo controls

WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), concerned that terrorists are still intent on slipping bombs aboard U.S.-bound aircraft, issued an emergency amendment Monday requiring several Middle East-based air carriers to provide more detailed information about cargo aboard their planes.

The change was driven by of the discovery on July 15, 2017, of what Michael Phelan, the Australian police deputy commissioner for national security, called “one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted” on Australian soil.

Military-grade explosives sent from Turkey via air cargo ended up in Sydney, destined for an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi. Phelan said at the time the plot was “inspired and directed” by members of ISIS.

While there is no intelligence suggesting an imminent plot to attack U.S.-bound airlines, effective immediately, “six carriers, based at seven last-point-of-departure airports in five different countries,” must begin following the Air Cargo Advance Screening program (ACAS) protocols, said a TSA official.

The airlines affected include Emirates, Etihad Airways, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Egypt Air, Saudia and Qatar Airways.

The airports affected are Dubai International Airport and Abu Dhabi International Airport, in the U.A.E.; Queen Alia International Airport, in Jordan; Cairo International Airport, in Egypt; King Abdul-Aziz International Airport and King Khalid International Airport, in Saudi Arabia, and Doha International Airport, in Qatar.

Those countries, according to a TSA official, were chosen “because of a demonstrated intent by terrorist groups to attack aviation from them.”

The official said the agency examined the threat in each country separately, “and cannot provide specific information about those threats, but after analyzing evaluated intelligence, we determined that we needed to expand the ACAS program within each of them at this time.”

ACAS, which is used to target high-risk air cargo, requires the carriers to submit details about each piece of cargo including the originating address, identify of sender, intended destination, contents of the cargo and details about where it has been en route to the airport.

Those details must be submitted, according to TSA documentation, “at the earliest point practicable prior to loading of the cargo onto the aircraft destined to or transiting through the United States.”

Timing of the submission of the data is a key factor. All cargo loaded onto an aircraft is screened, but this change requires the ACAS information to be submitted well in advance of that loading process.

“We don’t know what is in a cargo package until it gets to the airport and is loaded on a palette,” said a TSA official.

On March 21, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began making changes to aviation passenger and baggage screening. Among those changes was a requirement that all personal electronic devices larger than a cellphone or smartphone be placed in checked baggage at select last point of departure airports.

As a result of that change, passengers flying to the U.S. from 10 airports aboard nine airlines from eight countries in Africa and the Middle East were required to stow electronics larger than 6 inches long, 4 inches wide and a half-inch deep in the cargo hold of the planes.

Airports on the list at the time included:

  • Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), in Jordan;
  • Egypt’s Cairo International Airport (CAI);
  • Ataturk International Airport (IST), in Turkey;
  • King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) and King Khalid International Airport (RUH), both in Saudi Arabia;
  • Kuwait International Airport (KWI), in Kuwait;
  • Mohammed V Airport (CMN), in Casablanca;
  • Hamad International Airport (DOH), in Qatar;
  • Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) in Dubai.

A similar ban was implemented by the British government to inbound flights to the UK from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tunisia.

On June 28, 2017, DHS Secretary John Kelly said, “It is time to raise the global aviation security baseline.” The official WTOP spoke with said the latest changes are part of that process.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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