DUBAI // The coordinated actions of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US in response to last week's Yemen parcel bomb threat worked to prevent "loss of life", a senior international aviation official said yesterday.
Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), stressed the importance of sharing intelligence to prevent future attacks. "I must commend governments for their intelligence gathering, coordinated action, and their speedy and targeted response," he said in his opening speech at a two day-summit on aviation security in Frankfurt.
"The events of last weekend, with packages from Yemen, reminded us that governments and industry must work together."
After a tip-off from an Al Qa'eda defector, Saudi Arabian intelligence officials warned the US about the two explosive devices. After the initial Saudi alert, the "coordinated actions of the UK, US and UAE averted loss of life", Mr Bisignani said.
Saif al Suwaidi, the director general of the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority, has previously stressed that "good intelligence" is the key to detecting possible threats.
"Even if you have a very good screening system, it won't detect everything," Mr al Suwaidi said this week. "The key is to have very good intelligence and exchange of intelligence between countries. That is what we are trying to do now."
Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma), said that while human intelligence was crucial to preventing attacks, sharing between countries can often be a challenge.
"This is simply due to the nature of the job and the secrecy involved," he said. "However, knowing what the enemy is thinking and preventing it before it enters the territory is the key to success. Intelligence is everything."
While there has never been a successful attack against either air, land or sea freight sectors in the UAE, Mr Kahwaji stressed that vigilance remains essential, particularly in the maritime sector.
"There is a need for alert levels to remain high because the terrorists have found a soft spot and a gap that they exploited," he said. "The level of alert has to go up."
The parcel bomb incident has brought the vulnerability of air cargo into sharp focus, in an industry in which security protocols can differ between countries.
"The events in Yemen have put cargo security at the top of our agenda," Mr Bisignani said. He said the airline industry transported about 35 per cent of the total value of goods traded internationally. "Air freight drives the world economy … transporting these goods safely, securely and efficiently is critical." The entire supply chain - from manufacturer to airport - should be responsible for securing shipments, he said, and there was also an urgent need for new screening technology to move from the "laboratory to the airport".
"We must speed up the process," Mr Bisignani said, while highlighting that airport screening cannot be "the first line of defence" and can only complement strong intelligence and "supply chain solutions".
United Parcel Service (UPS), FedEx, TNT and Aramex are among the courier companies that have temporarily suspended shipments from Yemen since last weekend. DHL has stopped all shipments from Yemen to the US.
"The interception of explosive material in courier shipments is a serious international security concern," Hussein Hachem, the chief executive for Aramex in Middle East and Africa, said. "Shipments originating from Yemen have been suspended until further notice."
Mr Hachem also stressed the importance for the industry as a whole to keep "up to date with the most recent and sophisticated technology and systems available to detect and screen suspicious parcels".
The specific nature of some of these methods of detection remains unclear. DHL and UPS have both explained that publicly discussing their security efforts is counterproductive.
* With additional reporting by Ivan Gale and Carol Huang