Let me vent, please. How the heck did explosives-laden boxes get on US-bound cargo planes, after 9/11 and despite billions spent by governments and companies securing borders, skies, offices, production facilities, and the extended supply chain?
High-tech companies have been quiet on this, but many executives know this was a close call that, had it gone the other way, could have severely hurt the regular flow of business activities. Here is what we know: Last week, UPS and FedEx, two of the world's largest logistics companies, transported explosive devices on cargo planes headed to the United States before these were discovered. Some of the packages had even traveled on passenger flights before being transferred to cargo planes. Again, how could this have happened?
Investigators are trying to figure out how the bombs got on the planes, but this I know: It should never have happened. It turns out we've all been lulled into a false sense of security. The potential nightmare of planes blowing up over major world cities was averted by security agencies working in tandem globally. That was the good news. The horrible and mind-numbing news was that the bad guys actually got the explosive devices on planes and could have maimed and killed tens or hundreds of people on three different continents.
This is not the place to go into the details, but here is the UPS statement on the investigation. The bombs, according to news reports, had “all the hallmark of a higher degree of professionalism than we've ever seen come out of al-Qaeda. If al-Qaeda indeed made them, they've teamed up with true professionals.”
President Barack Obama in a statement Friday, Oct. 29, called the incident a “credible terrorist threat.” Does that mean the global supply chain is in jeopardy? Yes, but it has been for some time, and logistics, shipping, and third-party service providers are well aware of how fragile the system is. However, it has now become obvious that we have not completely sealed the loopholes terrorists can use to kill and harm individuals or disrupt global commerce.
What else can the international community do? Experts are already weighing in on this, but my initial thought is that we must not ever assume we've done all we can to secure international transportation. Security agencies and companies have to regularly test the system for openings terrorists can exploit and plug these once discovered.
However, as we explore what must be done to make international cargo shipment safer, we also must ask ourselves what must not be done to hand the terrorists a hidden victory. Blowing up a few planes is not going to end global commerce or give the terrorists what they want — whatever that is — but it can add unacceptable costs to transportation expenses worldwide. It can also stifle trade among certain nations, curb individual freedom excessively, and further complicate manufacturing in certain regions.
Already, UPS has “suspended service out of Yemen until further notice,” as the company noted in its statement, while a few countries, including Germany, have canceled until further notice both direct cargo and passenger flights from Yemen. That may seem to be a wise move, but what if the shipment had originated from a much more strategically important location like China? Would Germany, Europe's biggest economy and the No. 1 exporter to Asia, have taken the same action if the explosive devices had been placed on cargo planes originating in Shenzhen?
I have refrained from exploring the implications of these latest developments on the high-tech sector in this article because I am still calling companies to find out how they are responding. So far, most high-tech companies seem to be shrugging this off, but had the planes actually been blown up, the electronics manufacturing supply chain would have certainly suffered a violent, if temporary, seizure.