Britain tightens air security after Yemen bomb scare, renewing civil liberty concerns

After criticism of its initial response to the threat of Yemeni cargo-hold bombs, Britain is moving to close loopholes surrounding freight transportation and tighten vetting of travelers.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Cargo containers are driven past signs at the cargo center area of Heathrow Airport in west London on Nov. 1. Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May said on Sunday security around all international air cargo arriving in Britain was being reviewed after a bomb sent from Yemen was found aboard an aircraft at a regional airport.

Smarting from criticism of its initial response to the threat of Yemeni cargo-hold bombs, Britain is now moving not only to close off potential loopholes surrounding freight transportation but also to tighten its vetting of travelers.

“We are doing all we can to make sure that there are no gaps in our defenses," said Home Secretary Theresa May on Monday as she outlined US-style procedures such as no-fly lists for suspected terrorists and passenger profiling alongside the banning of unaccompanied air freight from Yemen.

After a bomb originating from Yemen was detected at a British airport in a cargo plane as a result of an intelligence tip-off rather than from scanning, the British government was left scrambling.

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Despite the renewed spotlight on an Al Qaeda threat, security hawks in Britain are hardly being praised by the public.

In fact, an increase in airport security is fueling a growing backlash from travelers and the airline industry just as, coincidentally, the government faces an emerging rebellion from libertarian-minded MPs in its own ranks over the retention of what are widely perceived as draconian counterterror measures in the wider society.

At the heart of the debate

Enter the issue of "control orders," essentially home curfews imposed on terror suspects – one of the most sensitive civil liberty issues for ministers.

A review of counterterrorism powers was set up immediately after the general election, with a specific directive to look at the effectiveness of the practice.

Up to 50 coalition MPs could vote "no" if the government seeks to keep control orders amid reports that Prime Minister David Cameron fears a split coalition.

Its junior half, the Liberal Democrat Party, is vehemently opposed to the orders, inherited from the previous Labour administration, while Mr. Cameron and Ms. May are under pressure from the security services to retain the measures.

Cargo bombs exasperated already tense mood

“Before this particular incident [the cargo bombs] the tide in Britain seemed to be running against intrusive security measures,” says Eric Grove, director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies at the University of Salford. “Things were moving in that direction with the airlines complaining and the libertarian element in the coalition apparently being successful in executing some changes.”

Dr. Grove argues that, "These two bombs have made it more difficult to argue the case that we should abandon some of the measure that were taken in the heat of 9/11, even though at a realistic – rather than at a rhetorical – level I think there is a crying need to rethink what measures are taken so that we don’t do the terrorist’s work for him."

Robin Simcox, an analyst at the right-leaning Centre for Social Cohesion, argues the need for the orders. He agrees that dropping them gathers popularity politically when there is “proliberal and antiauthoritarian mood,” but says that the renewed spotlight on the terror threat from Yemen helps to engender public acceptance.

“There is the potential for real division on this though, if the Liberal Democrats are saying that getting rid of the orders [is] a ‘red line’ for them, and the security services are saying retaining them is a red line for them,” he adds.

Political showdown?

For now, a political showdown in the form of a vote in Parliament is being delayed while a review of the orders’ effectiveness takes place.

Meanwhile, the government is receiving increasingly louder calls, often from nonpolitical quarters, for a rethink of airport security.

Last week, British Airways chairman, Martin Broughton, urged the British government to stop "kowtowing" to US security demands and drop "redundant" antiterror precautions at airports.

On Monday, Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Europe's largest short-haul airline, Ryanair, accused the British government of pandering to the terrorists.

"They are laughing away in their caves this morning at the prime minister and his security team meeting to discuss printer cartridges," he said.

Although often dismissed in past for hyperbole, on this occasion Mr. O’Leary’s comments won the approval of experts like Grove, who credited him with “saying some very sensible things”.

“There is no logic at all in extra passenger security,” says Grove.

“We need to think very carefully about the particular issues of the passenger airline and also the cargo airline but the two are rather different and to read across both of them strikes me as not just very silly but also counterproductive.”

Still, Grove concedes, "If there was more profiling and less of the sort of routine checks going on I would not necessarily be against that. What we need is more focused security measures rather than a broad brush approach.”

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