x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Co-operation is key to fighting terrorism

Co-operation is the most potent weapon we have in dealing with terrorist attempts such as last week's discovery of explosives aboard aircraft in Dubai and the UK.

Last week's terrorist attempts to send explosives from Yemen to the US in air cargo shipments cut to the heart of Middle East attempts to build the region into a global cargo hub.

Billions of dollars are being spent in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha to funnel the world's trade through their redistribution centres, which include world-class airlines and deepwater ports, as well as huge planned and existing airports.

As a result, security authorities in the region face a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, they are aware that as their airports take a larger slice of global cargo and passenger traffic - in most cases taking business away from western hubs such as in Europe - they could be finding themselves exposed to "western" problems such as security threats.

On the other hand, Gulf states have always been in a tough neighbourhood of the world, and the level of stability and security that has been enjoyed by these countries is remarkable.

Last week's bombing attempt was the second time in less than a year that Yemen-based extremists have attempted an act of terrorism against the US.

Last December, the world was introduced to the "underwear bomber", Umar Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who was outfitted with explosives called pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) that were sewn into his undergarments while he was in Yemen.

Last Friday, the Yemen-PETN connection resurfaced. Explosives in packages addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area were discovered in the UK and Dubai.

The discovery led to a frenzied search for other devices.

The increasing use of PETN may be worrying for authorities because it is difficult to detect by conventional means. Many commercially produced explosives are injected with chemical markers to assist with tracing and taggants, which ensure the explosive is easier to detect through vapour systems.

But some explosives produced in other countries lack these, said Paul Burke, the managing director of Middle East Security, based in the UAE and the UK. This makes the work of law enforcement agencies more difficult, Mr Burke said.

Last week's failed act of terrorism shows Yemeni terrorists are learning from earlier failures, much like a series of mistakes led to the eventual success of the USS Cole attack in 2000, he said.

"This attempt relied on the devices being transited on to a cargo aircraft, having been configured to detonate in mid-flight," Mr Burke said. "It sends a message that al Qae'da is still in the fight and that they have modified their tactics in accordance with previously failed attempts."

The underwear bomber did not fly on a Middle East airline, instead boarding a KLM flight from Lagos to Amsterdam, then flying with Northwest Airlines to Detroit.

Last week's incidents are of greater concern to regional authorities because of the involvement of a Qatar Airways aircraft to transport the explosives from Yemen to Dubai through Doha. The explosives were eventually found at a FedEx sorting centre.

The UAE and other GCC states have invested heavily in their security apparatus to detect hazardous goods sent by air freight, and they have a solid safety record.

But the heroes of the day appear to be the Saudi intelligence services, which monitored security threats within neighbouring Yemen closely and passed on information that led to the discovery of the explosives.

Companies and governments have started to respond by clamping down on goods originating from Yemen. France and Germany have halted shipments from the country. In Germany, authorities have greater cause for concern after the explosives-filled parcel intercepted in the UK was shipped by a cargo plane flying from Cologne.

At the request of US authorities, Germany's transport ministry reportedly asked DHL, the global logistics company, to bolster security around goods from Yemen at its centre in Leipzig.

Two of the largest American cargo companies are also beefing up security. UPS suspended cargo service from Yemen and said it was co-operating with authorities. FedEx, the world's largest cargo operator, says it will also halt Yemeni shipments.

Yemen is thought to comprise only a small share of Middle East trade that is routed through the major Gulf airport hubs. Its major exports include coffee, dried and salted fish, crude oil and liquefied natural gas, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

This would suggest a clampdown on the exports would have only a minor effect outside Yemen, although it could stifle trade for Yemen itself. Yesterday Yemen's civil aviation authority sought to ease concerns by announcing it was considering 100 per cent X-ray screening on goods.

What would have a more profound effect is if the week's events led to a wholesale upgrade in the way cargo was processed at the likes of Dubai International Airport, one of the world's largest hubs. In September, the airport handled 187,390 tonnes of cargo, an 11.3 per cent gain from the same period last year.

Raising the cost of doing business through Dubai, or the time it takes to process goods through the centre, could hurt Dubai's competitiveness as a global cargo flow hub.

So far, the Dubai Police Department and the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority have not announced any additional screening, and analysts said governments would be wary of appearing alarmist. To date, shipments from Yemen are still being allowed into the UAE.

While the longer-term implications will unfold over time, the value of information sharing is the immediate and obvious lesson.

"The intelligence provided by the Saudi authorities was credible and timely, and is yet another example of the benefits of better intelligence-sharing between GCC countries," Mr Burke said.

"The mechanisms and agreements exist - we just need to use them more productively."