If a terrorist organisation is seeking to target a cargo aircraft to make a political proclamation, obstruct commerce or simply shock the world, local and regional air traffic may be an easier path.
Vigilance for cargo on carriers large and small
AQAP's use of major carriers from the Gulf to transport packages from the region has drawn a quick reaction from UAE-based airlines such as Etihad and Emirates, and now Air Arabia in Sharjah. The extra security and regulations on major carriers are likely to cause a significant share of air cargo traffic to shift to the many smaller carriers.
With roughly two million tonnes of air freight annually going through Dubai alone, it is already a challenge to monitor security threats. The shift to smaller carriers that have less stringent regulations will provide smaller commercial entities in the Gulf an economic boost. It will also mean that companies with a lower capacity for monitoring security threats will be responsible for a greater share of air freight, which assuredly AQAP will try to manipulate. So while the banning of air cargo from Yemen by major airlines is a positive step, it must be complemented by a comprehensive strategy that bolsters the capabilities of smaller companies, for which the UAE serves as a hub.
For more than two decades Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, and Sharjah have had dozens of "no-name" cargo carriers that operate out of their facilities. Other GCC states, including Qatar and Kuwait, also allow smaller operators in and out to transport goods.
Not so many years ago it was well known that contraband materials could be shipped via smaller cargo airlines from several emirates to locations in Central Asia. For instance, on Tuesdays, it was rumoured, one could send a shipment on a flight direct to Dushanbe from one airport in the region for a fee, no questions asked. The case of Victor Bout, the arms dealer still locked up in a Thai prison, who based himself in the Gulf to transfer lethal goods around the world, is the most famous.
Things have changed dramatically. In 2005, Dubai-based Emirates Group became the first Middle East air cargo and airline organisation to achieve TAPA (Technology Asset Protection Association) certification, in recognition of high standards of security. Under the TAPA certification, all airport warehouses of Emirates Group companies - Dnata, Emirates SkyCargo, Emirates Group Security, and Transguard, were certified to TAPA Classification A - the highest category of the certification. Other major airlines vie for this title but smaller carriers appear to fall outside this area.
The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority and other airports within the UAE must maintain a constant level of vigilance based on international rules, advice and regulations. Officers play a high-visibility role in general patrols of the airport, the monitoring of arriving passenger and cargo, the supervision of scanning of cargo and baggage, and the protection of sensitive areas and equipment, such as the airport's navigation aids.
All members of staff are regularly briefed on new regulations regarding security issues, and an ongoing programme of security training courses ensures all key employees at the airports are aware of the latest recommendations and developments. Information is shared between the airport and various international agencies, including the airlines making use of UAE airports. This information-sharing network is essential in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and security.
But if a terrorist organisation is seeking to target a cargo aircraft to make a political proclamation, obstruct commerce, or simply shock the world, local and regional air traffic may be an easier path. Certification of all cargo companies is a critical step, especially in the current environment.
AQAP is a very serious organisation bent on disrupting commercial traffic. The group has the leadership and tacticians to carry out attacks in the Gulf and worldwide. It now claims that it was behind the crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in September 2010. This may or may not be true and the entire case needs to be re-examined.
Nevertheless, security for this type of commerce is not the same as for other commercial operators and needs to be reviewed in the wake of the attempted cargo bombings by AQAP. However, there should be extra caution that al Qa'eda in Yemen could try to shift its operations elsewhere to circumvent the embargoes.
The first layer is to isolate the Yemen case, as the authorities are doing, and see what the impact is. Then officials can decide if the ban needs to be expanded to other countries through direct communication and intelligence sharing.
Ultimately, cargo that is loaded on to cargo planes should be treated no differently than cargo loaded on to commercial cargo flights, ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars. The UAE can be a leader in this realm when it comes to smaller carriers for the rest of the region and beyond.
Dr Theodore Karasik is director of research and development at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). Taufiq Rahim is a visiting fellow at the Dubai School of Government