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Officials: Electronic devices may hide airline threat

Items modified to carry weapons found in al Qaeda hideouts

From Jeanne Meserve
CNN Washington Bureau

Homeland Security officials say the directive will tell screeners to pay attention to electronic devices.
Homeland Security officials say the directive will tell screeners to pay attention to electronic devices.

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve on the warning that electronic devices may have been adapted to hide weapons.
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CNN's Patty Davis on the antiterrorist safeguards installed on most passenger airplanes.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security officials have told CNN that an advisory will be issued directing the aviation industry and all federal screeners and local authorities to pay particular attention to electronic items like remote key locks, and specific brands and models of cell phones, boom boxes and cameras.

Recent raids of al Qaeda safe houses overseas turned up evidence that the group was trying to modify electronic devices to carry small weapons or explosives, administration officials told CNN. For instance, a camera flash was being modified to convert to, or carry, a stun gun, the officials said.

The discoveries in those hideouts led to the decision last week to warn the aviation sector of possible hijackings.

That warning read in part, "The hijackers may attempt to use common items carried by travelers, such as cameras, modified as weapons."

A Homeland Security official said the new advisory would clarify that information and is not based on more-recent intelligence.

One airport official, who did not want to be identified, said the new advisory could lead to further delays at security checkpoints at what is already the busiest time of year for the airline industry.

The official pointed out that X-ray machines used at passenger-screening checkpoints cannot identify explosives, and screeners might be forced to swab electronics for explosive residue or put suspicious items through the more sophisticated CTX machines that are used to screen checked baggage.

Although last week's directive applied to domestic travelers who set off metal detectors or who are selected for random screening, it was aimed primarily at those travelers transiting through the United States without a visa.

The administration has since suspended the two programs that allow some foreigners to travel through the United States without a visa. (Full story)

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Sunday that authorities may add "enhanced security measures" for arriving passengers who are citizens of so-called "visa-waiver countries," which includes many countries in Western Europe.

The measures under consideration, he said, include "subjecting these individuals and their baggage to far-more-rigorous screening than ever before."

"We're going to have an entry-exit system based on a machine-readable passport, so we'll be able to verify and validate they are who they claim to be," Ridge said.

One Homeland Security official said Monday that the new advisory should not discourage Americans from flying, saying officials now know what al Qaeda is working on and that the United States is taking steps to reduce the risk. From that perspective, the official said, flying is now safer than before.

Over the weekend, an audiotape purported to be from a top deputy to Osama bin Laden was broadcast by the Dubai-based Arabic-language network Al Arabiya, threatening that the United States and its allies will pay a "very high price" if any of the men held at Guantanamo Bay are harmed.

A CIA technical analysis found the voice on the tape is "most likely" that of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a CIA official said Monday. (Full story)

Investigators believe al-Zawahiri played an important role in the attacks of September 11, 2001. And the threats on the tape referred to attacks by al Qaeda.

"We are saying to America one thing: What you saw with your eyes so far are only the first tactics we are using. The real battle didn't start yet." (Full story)

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