Shoe Bombs, Toothpaste Bombs And The Rash Of Air Travel Warnings

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TSA officer
A TSA security officer checks a passenger at the Salt Lake City international airport, in Salt Lake City, Utah on Nov. 21, 2012.

Until two weeks ago, it seemed as though the U.S. might be in the process of shifting toward a more hassle-free air travel experience. But a series of generic and wide-sweeping advisories in recent weeks tell a different tale of a government concerned as ever about the threat of airlines in the war on terror more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The latest advisory came Wednesday when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an alert to airlines about a possible shoe bomb threat on flights entering the U.S. from abroad. “Out of an abundance of caution, DHS regularly shares relevant information with domestic and international partners about relevant threat information as we work to meet our mission of keeping the traveling public safe,” the Department said in a statement emailed to International Business Times. “These types of regular communications are part of that important priority.”

DHS added that its security apparatus “includes a number of measures, both seen and unseen, informed by the latest intelligence.” It said it continually adjusts its security measures to fit an “ever evolving threat environment.”

NBC News first broke the story of the new alert Wednesday morning and said that several officials familiar with it explained that “very recent intelligence” considered credible warns of possible attempts to attack passenger jets using explosives concealed in shoes.

As a result, those officials claim screeners have been urged to use explosive trace detection swabs to check shoes worn and in carry-on bags. DHS also reportedly encouraged screeners to subject passengers headed to the U.S. to increased scrutiny in pat downs and full-body screenings.

The officials gave no word on any specific plots or increased threat levels for any particular airline, country or time period, though they noted that the “moderate threat” was unrelated to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The U.S. government issued a separate alert on Feb. 6 ahead of the Olympics banning all liquids, gels and aerosols from carry-on luggage on flights between the U.S. and Russia. It said the restrictions were a response to warnings that terrorists might hide bomb-making materials in toothpaste tubes for assembly during or after flights.

Limits on carry-on liquids and gels can be traced back to 2006 when U.K. police claimed to have foiled a plot to use liquids to obliterate U.S.-bound jets. But it was a shoe bomb three months after the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, that first helped spur the U.S. government to tighten airline security.

Passengers subdued Britton Richard Reid on a December flight from Paris to Miami after he attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his high-top sneakers. Authorities said the explosives were powerful enough to blast through the aircraft’s fuselage, and Reid is now serving a life sentence in prison.

Before the alerts this past month, the U.S. had actually begun to relax some of the myriad restrictions put in place over the past decade. In terms of shoes, for example, the Transportation Security Administration stopped forcing passengers under 12 or over 75 to take them off. It also put in place a PreCheck program that allows those enrolled in a trusted traveler network to enter about 100 U.S. airports through a special security lane where they don’t have to take off shoes, belts and jackets or remove laptops, liquids or gels.

Some of TSA’s efforts to amend its stringent regulations have even come under fire for being too lax. A proposal last year to again permit on planes small knives with nonlocking blades smaller than 2.36 inches and less than ½ inch in width was shot down by various factions of the airline industry over fears of air rage.

Whether the increasing frequency of air travel alerts in 2014 is an indication of a change in tune remains to be seen.

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