Fix U.S. Airport Security before It's Too Late

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official's wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City

Where drugs can enter the country undetected, so can explosives.

The same security flaws that allow drugs into the United States can be exploited by terror groups and may eventually lead to another 9/11-type mass terror attack. It is time to close that gap by focusing on illicit cargo with the same intensity that we do on dangerous passengers.

Since 9/11, Americans have gotten accustomed to an ever growing set of restrictions on air travel—shoes off, body searches and scans, no liquids or gels, just to name a few. They endure the inconvenience because they believe it makes air travel safe. But despite improvements in airport security measures focused on the potential threat from passengers, the failure to screen suspicious cargo creates vulnerabilities that both terrorists and drug traffickers can manipulate.

A case in point is the arrest and extradition of Ali Issa Chamas, a suspected Hezbollah drug trafficker extradited from Paraguay to Miami in June 2017. Chamas was arrested in August 2016 while dispatching thirty-nine kilograms of cocaine to Turkey. Investigators discovered that Chamas was conspiring with a Houston-based associate to ship hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to the United States. The means of delivery? Air cargo. According to court documents, Chamas boasted of a secure and fast way to deliver his merchandise to the United States. He was no more concerned about cargo screening in the United States than in Paraguay, where corrupt officials look the other way in exchange for bribes.

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Chamas was based in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, from where his shipments originated, but he was part of a larger cocaine trafficking network based in Colombia, the main source of cocaine exports to the United States and Europe. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Hezbollah has spent the last decade building strong relations with drug cartels in Latin America such as the Mexican Zetas and the Colombian Oficina del Envigado. Chamas may have been a middleman for their merchandise, operating out of the TBA.

The flights that depart the TBA’s airport in Paraguay’s Ciudad Del Este are usually all-cargo. But eventually, the merchandise these large planes carry is left at mid-points for pickup and may reach the United States in the cargo section of passenger aircraft. Hezbollah and their drug cartel associates may thus deliver illicit packages to the United States by exploiting lax efforts to screen foreign cargo—and where drugs can enter the country undetected, so can explosives.

The use of cargo for terrorist purposes is not new. The late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar had explosives planted on an Avianca passenger airliner in 1989, killing all 107 passengers on board. Terror groups have targeted planes since the 1970’s, with Islamic terrorists obsessively targeting aircraft before and after 9/11. Many of these cases involved suicide bombers who carried explosives in their own hand luggage onboard the plane—such as the December 2001 case of shoe bomber Richard Reid, the August 2006 plot to use liquid explosive in carry-on bottles to blow up U.S. bound flights from London and the Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomber case on an Northwestern Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

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