After the Trump administration announced a ban on carrying electronic devices larger than a mobile phone in the cabins of US-bound aeroplanes coming from certain Middle Eastern and African countries, experts were left questioning whether such a ban will actually be effective in preventing terrorist attacks.
On Tuesday evening, the US Department of Homeland Security announced the ban, which will apply to nonstop flights originating from 10 airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Passengers will have to place all electronic items larger than a mobile phone in their checked luggage so the devices cannot be accessed in-flight.
“Evaluated intelligence indicates 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,” a senior administration official said on a call with members of the media.
Ban ‘ignores the realities of terrorist behaviour’
David C. Gomez, a retired FBI counterterrorism executive and senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said on Twitter that the ban “ignores the realities of terrorist behaviour” because passengers could simply “fly to London, Paris, [or] Amsterdam and switch carriers” to reach the US.
“If truly a threat, why allow devices to be stowed in luggage and then placed in cargo hold?” Gomez asked. “That seems counterproductive.”
Andrew Lebovich, a North Africa expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, made a similar point, asking, “Does the administration think terrorists can’t take flights on American carriers?”
“Perhaps there’s an unknown or secret logic,” Lebovich said. “But as presented and reported, this electronics ban makes absolutely no sense.”
Lebovich also said the ban is “going to make a number of countries/people whose support we need in various ways very, very unhappy.” The US partners to fight terrorism with some the countries included in the ban.
Paul Cruickshank, editor-in-chief of the Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel at West Point, said it’s “unlikely” that terrorists could get laptop bombs past state-of-the-art detection systems. He pointed to an article published in the CTC Sentinel last year that said “layered state-of-the-art detection systems that are now in place at most airports in the developed world make it very hard for terrorists to sneak bombs onto planes.”
Still, the article noted that the “largest vulnerability facing the global aviation sector today” comes from the fact that “many airports in the developing world … lag in deploying state-of-the-art machines, rigorous training, and best practices,” and that terrorist groups can “recruit airport insiders in both the developed and developing worlds who either are likely to receive less scrutiny from fellow airport staff at security checkpoints than passengers or can evade screening altogether.”
But Cruickshank said that if a bomb can escape detection in carry-on luggage, it can escape detection in checked luggage, as well.
“Trump [administration] yet to explain why laptops will be allowed in hold but not cabin in new ban,” he said. “Same explosive detection tech used for both.”
Cruickshank said this suggests that the concern is over devices that manually detonate, although timer devices contained in luggage in an aeroplane hold could pose a threat as well.
Some speculated that the ban could have underlying effects on business. Tom Pepinsky, a political science professor at Cornell who focuses on the political economy, said that long-haul Middle Eastern airlines that would be affected by the ban, like Emirates and Etihad, “are of course the main threat to legacy carriers [international] business travel.”
‘No new technological breakthroughs make this threat any more serious today’
Tech experts also questioned the wisdom of the ban.
Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, told The Guardian that the ban is an “onerous travel restriction.”
“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today,” he said. “That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today. And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”
Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, also expressed scepticism.
“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” he told The Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cell phone is a computer.”
Implications on airline business
Business travellers coming from other destinations in the Middle East and Asia and connecting through major hubs like Dubai to get to the US might now want to switch their routes, experts said, which could affect Middle Eastern airlines’ business.
“For nearly any [international] destination without direct flights from US (think Jakarta, Nairobi, Islamabad),” these Middle Eastern airlines “are almost always better,” Pepinsky said.
These airlines are faster, cheaper, and have much nicer service, Pepinsky said. But he added that “there is no way a traveller will check a laptop on such flights, [especially] business travellers.”
“This is a major blow to long haul [Middle Eastern] airlines’ business model, which is obviously not about flying people to Abu Dhabi or Doha,” he said.
About 50 flights per day will be affected by the ban.
Ban ‘both necessary and proportional’ to threat
The Department of Homeland Security cited the attempted downing of Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February of last year in which a terrorist managed to sneak a “sophisticated laptop bomb” past X-ray scanners in Somalia as an example of the threat the directive is attempting to counteract.
The department also pointed to the 2015 bombing of a Russian MetroJet Airbus in Egypt that killed all 224 people on board along with recent terrorist attacks at Brussels Airport and Ataturk International in Istanbul.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement Tuesday expressing support for the ban, citing recent intelligence.
“As Ranking Member on the Intelligence Committee, I am continually briefed on the changing threat climate and the most recent intelligence on how our enemies may attack us, and our friends and allies,” Schiff said in the statement. “Over the weekend, I received an additional briefing by the Department of Homeland Security, and I fully support the new security precautions implemented by the Department over the weekend.”
He continued: “These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat.”
Schiff added that terrorists are trying to use “creative ways to try and outsmart detection methods.”
Trump administration officials have acknowledged, however, that the new measures aren’t based on any specific or credible threat of imminent attack, according to The New York Times. But there are concerns about gaps in foreign airport security.
Part of this concern is based on “insider threats” at airports — the CTC Sentinel cited the example of the MetroJet flight in Egypt, onto which a mechanic allegedly smuggling a bomb. The terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said Al Qaeda “has been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be brought on planes, avoiding X-Ray detection, for some time.”
He also noted that he warned Congress that Al Qaeda could “plant sophisticated explosives on Western airliners” in testimony last month.
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