Inkjet bombs spark bans on printer cartridges

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Following the detection of two bombs hidden inside printer inkjet cartridges, the US government has joined Great Britain in banning passengers from taking large printer cartridges with them on airplane flights.

Discovered aboard planes in Dubai and at the East Midlands airport in the UK two weeks ago, the inkjet cartridge bombs reportedly contained a colorless and odorless explosive called pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), along with detonators outfitted to be able to receive cell phone calls.

Although both planes carrying the bombs were cargo flights, UK authorities quickly clamped down on airline passengers with a new prohibition against carrying printer cartridges heavier than 500 grams — or around 17.6 ounces — in hand luggage on all flights from Britain.

About a week later, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the US issued a press release unveiling a new ban for passengers against carrying toner and ink cartridges weighing over 16 ounces in either checked or carry-on luggage, aboard both US domestic and inbound international flights.

The new policy in Great Britain is a 30-day emergency measure, effective through the beginning of December as officials study airport scanning measures there.

Meanwhile, critics are attacking the new policies on both sides of the Atlantic on several grounds — pointing out, for example, that most passengers are unlikely to be toting inkjet cartridges in their luggage, and that terrorists are capable of turning many other items besides printer cartridges into bombs.

“What happens [is] that we have another huge lurch by the government into making travel even more uncomfortable and an even more tedious ordeal for the public,” said Michael O’Leary the chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, in an interview aired over BBC Radio.

Some are implying that the UK acted under pressure from the US. The chairman of British Airways (BA), Martin Broughton, reportedly told attendees at a European aviation conference that the UK should stop “kowtowing” to US airport security mandates such as requiring passengers to take off their shoes and remove laptops from cases at security checkpoints.

On the other hand, the inkjet bans really only apply to high-end business printer cartridges, since most cartridges used in home and small office inkjet printers weigh much less than 16 ounces, anyway.

Government officials were reportedly alerted to the inkjet bombs in Dubai and the UK by a tip from an informant.

As shown in photos from international news agencies, the bomb in Dubai was housed in a printer awaiting shipment to the US. Although the printer was being shipped as cargo, it had been aboard two passenger planes before it was found. On a worldwide basis, as much as 15 percent of air cargo gets flown in the holds of passenger flights instead of on separate cargo flights, according to an account in the Daily Mail of London.

In addition to encasing PETN explosive materials, the cartridge contained an electrical circuit attaching to a cell phone SIM card.

Police in Dubai believe that the terrorists planned to use UPS’s Web-accessible package tracking information to figure out when the package had arrived in the US, and to then ignite the explosive material by texting or phoning the SIM card phone number.

The inkjet cartridge bomb in East Midlands was uncovered in a UPS cargo dispatch center at the airport. One of the two cartridge bombs discovered this month encased 300 grams of explosives, and the other 400 grams, according to the UK-based publication The Independent.

In addition to the luggage crackdown, the British government announced emergency bans on freight from Yemen and Somalia, and on shipment of the cartridges on any cargo flight “unless sent by a trusted shipper already approved by the government,” according to the Independent.

In its statement on November 8, the DHS in the US said that a ban on incoming freight emanating from Yemen will be continued, while also extending the ban to all incoming freight from Yemen.

The DHS said the bans on toner and ink cartridges above 16 ounces will also apply to “certain inbound international air cargo shipments” and to inbound international mail packages, which will be screened individually and certified to come from an established postal shipper.

“The Administration is also working closely with industry and our international partners to expedite the receipt of cargo manifests for international flights to the United States prior to departure in order to identify and screen items based on risk and current intelligence. We are also working with our international and private sector partners on the expansion of layered [detection systems] including technology and other measures,” according to the statement.

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