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US seeks to head off new terrorist threats against air cargo

US security officials have uncovered specific cargo-related terrorist threats against US-bound aircraft, prompting the customs agency to tighten requirements related to air cargo reporting.

"[The Department of Homeland Security] has received specific, classified intelligence that certain terrorist organisations seek to exploit vulnerabilities in international air cargo security," the agency says in a new rule made public on 11 June.

"Global terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as their offshoots and associates, remain committed to targeting international commercial airline operations in order to maximise the effects of their terror campaign," the rule adds.

The Department of Homeland Security has therefore changed the deadline by which airlines must file cargo security reports with Customs and Border Protection.

Under a rule that takes effect 12 June, carriers must file those reports prior to when the cargo is loaded on aircraft bound for the USA, according to the rule.

Carriers already submit similar reports to US customs officials, but, in most cases, those reports are not due until four hours prior to a flight's arrival, documents say.

The reports describe the cargo and include other identifying information aimed at helping US officials identify high-risk cargo.

"It is essential to perform a risk assessment earlier in the air cargo supply chain, prior to the aircraft’s departure," says the rule. "This risk assessment must be based on real-time data and intelligence available to determine if the cargo posed a risk to the aircraft in flight."

Because the rule takes effect so soon, officials will "show restraint in enforcing" the rule for 12 months, it says.

Several US cargo airlines did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

UPS Airlines is still reviewing the rule, but notes that since 2010 it participated in a pilot programme that involved sending cargo reports to the US government prior to cargo loading.

A number of carriers participated in that effort, which led to the new rule.

"UPS was the first private sector company involved and we are in full support of the programme and codifying it into law," says UPS.

Trade group Airlines for America takes a similar view, saying it supports "risk-based" security measures.

It calls the pilot programme a "shining example" of effective government-industry cooperation that has helped assess more than 500 million shipments since 2010.

"While we are still reviewing the details of the interim final rule language, we have long advocated for formalisation of the [pilot] program... and we look forward to working closely with [Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Safety Administration] to ensure the smoothest possible implementation," says Airlines for America.

The new rule provides no details about specific threats, and the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But the rule does recap other recent terrorist attacks and says terrorists have shifted to targeting cargo vulnerabilities.

It notes an incident on Christmas Day 2009 when a terrorist on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit attempted unsuccessfully to detonate a bomb in his underwear.

"Due to the increased passenger screening implemented after the Christmas Day 2009 attempt, the terrorist organisation decided to employ explosive devices sent via air cargo," the government says.

In 2010 terrorists attempted to blow up an aircraft over the USA using bombs placed inside Hewlett Packard printers. Security officials thwarted that plot, but not before the bombs had already been transported on several commercial flights.

Then in 2017 Australian officials disrupted a plot by terrorists to detonate an improvised explosive device on an Etihad Airways flight from Sydney, the document notes.

Story updated on 11 June to include comments from trade group Airlines for America.

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