Electronics ban on commercial flights may become more widespread, experts say

FILE - In this May 21, 2016, file photo, an EgyptAir plane flies past minarets of a mosque as it approaches Cairo International Airport, in Cairo, Egypt. A new U.S. security measure targeting flights from eight mostly Muslim countries is leading travelers to reconsider their plans to fly through some airports in the Middle East. An electronics ban affects flights from international airports to the U.S. from in Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Cairo; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

The threat of terrorists smuggling explosives onto U.S.-bound international flights hidden in consumer electronic devices has led to a new security precaution that will affect eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The new restriction bans passengers on direct flights to the United States from carrying laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices larger than a cellphone in the cabin of the aircraft.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the new security measure on Tuesday, explaining that the measure was based on intelligence that "terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items." ]

The impact of this electronics ban will be felt ten airports located in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Each of these airports provides direct flights to the United States. Domestic flights won't be affected.

Shortly after the U.S. announced the ban on certain electronic devices, Great Britain issued its own warning, which government officials described as "necessary, effective and proportionate." Passengers flying direct to Britain from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey will now have to stow any electronic device larger than 16cm long, 9.3cm wide or 1.5cm deep.

As of Tuesday, the government of Canada was weighing a similar measure. Canada's Transport Minister Marc Garneau spoke with DHS Secretary Kelly this week and indicated that the Canadian government will evaluate the intelligence passed on by U.S. authorities before taking action.

Most of the airlines affected have issued statements to their passengers seeking to minimize confusion, frustration and delays, with many indicating that the new restrictions will be in effect beginning Friday March 24. Emirates Air said the ban would be in place until at least October 2017, but that date has not been confirmed by DHS.

As noted in the DHS statement, terrorist plots against commercial airlines are nothing new, and a number of incidents in recent years have highlighted that vulnerability. In 2015, the Islamic State group took responsibility for downing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, reportedly using a bomb smuggled on board. Al-Shabaab, a Somali offshoot of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for an explosion on an international flight out of Mogadishu, triggered by a laptop device. And EgyptAir was the target of a suspected terrorist bombing in May 2016.

According to Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a Center for Strategic and International Security (CSIS) expert who formerly worked on the National Security Council and National Counterterrorism Center, the threat outlined in the DHS memo indicates a high level of technical skill on the part of would-be terrorists.

"Building a bomb around an electronic device, one that can avoid detection through airport surveillance, getting it on an airplane to detonate when you want, that is graduate-level stuff," Nelson said. "There are very few organizations and very few individuals who can actually build a bomb of that nature."

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one of the organizations that is well-known for their sophisticated bomb-making techniques. AQAP's chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri has been identified in a number of high-profile terrorist plots, including the unsuccessful December 25, 2014 underwear bomb deployed on a domestic U.S. flight. The group was also implicated in the attempted 2010 bombing of a cargo flight from Yemen to the United States. In that instance, toner cartridges were converted into explosive devices intended to detonate in the cargo hold midair.

Nelson is confident that the targeting of ten specific airports in eight countries likely reflects "very specific and very clear intelligence" obtained by U.S. authorities about potential threats.

"The fact that the DHS is able to limit the ban to certain regions of the world, to certain airports and to certain technologies, shows that we have good intelligence, which is always critical in providing the security of transportation systems," he said. The manner in which Britain followed suit in authorizing its own electronics ban underscores that point.

The terrorist attack on the British Parliament Wednesday is yet another reminder that western nations are still prime targets for high-profile terrorist attacks. As the United States shares intelligence and threat assessments with allies in Europe and around the world, some are likely to take similar steps to shore up their aviation security.

In response to the threat of weaponized electronics devices, Nelson noted, "I would expect that there might be other nations that might take similar precautions as well."

As the Trump administration rolls out another homeland security measure impacting international travel, there are some who are comparing the eight-nation electronics ban to the very chaotic roll-out of President Donald Trump's seven-nation travel ban. Like the travel ban, the countries targeted in the latest DHS order are predominantly Muslim. They are also direct neighbors to the countries targeted by Trump's immigration order.

Eric Lob, a professor at Florida International University who focuses on Middle East and terrorism studies, compared the roll-out of Trump's first travel ban to the new restriction on electronics.

"I'm skeptical that it will actually make us safer," he said of the plan. "It seems like an un-nuanced policy to a complex problem, very much like slapping a travel ban on specific countries or banning the use of [in-flight] electronic devices from specific countries."

The selective application of the electronics ban on certain countries also raises the issue of potential attackers choosing to adjust their tactics and try to launch an attack from a country that is not included in the list, or a flight that is not bound for Britain or the United States. "It's a game of cat and mouse," Lob warned.

Technology experts have also questioned the wisdom of the ban, specifically why an explosive device would be safer in cargo storage than in the cabin. If there are concerns about laptops on board being used as explosives, many of those same risks could exist in checked baggage. "If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold," said Nicholas Weaver, researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

In addition to the questions raised by technologists, there are economic factors that may be at play in electronics ban, as air travel has already been disrupted on nine regional airlines as a result of just the U.S. ban.

"The costs this is going to have logistically on travelers will more adversely affect American and British competitors," Lob suggested. Some have viewed the disruption as an intentionally punitive measure negatively impacting airlines like Royal Jordanian, Emirates, Saudi Airlines and Qatar Airways who have much higher customer ratings by international travelers.

As passengers begin to experience disruptions and learn that they can't bring their e-reader or laptop on an international flight, Brian Nussbaum, professor of national security and terrorism studies at the University of Albany, advised not to blame the chaotic process on DHS.

"It is certainly representative of the challenges of coordinating these sorts of policies across government agencies ... and many private sector vendors," he said, a problem that is even more pronounced in the commercial environment as airlines and airports compete for passengers.

If the security measures are supported by underlying intelligence, as U.S. and UK authorities have said, then they are reasonable, Nussbaum said, given the threat. But if that threat is proven to be credible, the ban on electronics could become more widespread in the near future.

"On the whole, once one group figures out how to circumvent a particular security measure it is unusual for them to stay quiet for a long time," he noted, adding that terrorists' tactical innovations have a tendency to spread quickly across organizations that share similar aims.

The new electronics ban has echoes of the regulation banning passengers from carrying liquids in their carry on luggage, a rule that has been in effect since the mid-2000s. That specific ban was in response to a failed bomb plot in the United Kingdom using peroxide-based explosives hidden in drink bottles.

"At the time, there were a lot of people who very skeptical of the utility of those security measures and it felt very arbitrary to a lot of people," Nussbaum explained. "But over time, intelligence has subsequently come out that suggested those were pretty reasonable steps to be taken in response to a real threat." After a new phase of airline passenger inconvenience, it may be that the threat becomes better understood and people will be able to judge the current electronics ban more clearly.

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