U.S. media reports say worries about an Islamic State bomb led U.S. authorities to ban passengers from carrying large electronic devices on inbound flights from some airports in the Middle East.
Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times reports that the ban was put in place to counter IS jihadists’ plans to develop a bomb small enough to fit inside a laptop battery.
ABC reports that intelligence obtained by U.S. officials earlier this year showed the IS group working on ways to smuggle explosives onto U.S.-bound planes. A government source told ABC the threat information is “substantiated” and “credible.”
The Transportation Safety Agency, however, denied any specific threat and said in a statement it instituted the ban due to “evaluated intelligence” that shows terrorist groups’ continued interest in targeting commercial flights.
The directive requires passengers flying directly to the United States from 10 Middle Eastern airports to store electronic devices larger than a cellphone in checked baggage. The TSA said it chose not to include cellphones due to logistical reasons.
The TSA said it chose the airports “based on the current threat picture” and after consultation with intelligence officials, though more airports could be added in the future.
“As threats change, so too will TSA’s security requirements,” the agency said.
The airports affected by the U.S. ban are: Queen Alia International Airport, Cairo International Airport, Ataturk International Airport, King Abdul-Aziz International Airport, King Khalid International Airport, Kuwait International Airport, Mohammed V Airport, Hamad International Airport, Dubai International Airport, and Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Britain institutes ban
Britain joined the United States in instituting a similar ban on large electronic devices Tuesday, though the British version is slightly less restrictive.
The British directive will block carry-on electronics larger than 16 centimeters in length, 9.3 centimeters in width and with a depth of over 1.5 centimeters on direct flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
“Direct flights to the U.K. from these destinations continue to operate to the U.K. subject to these new measures being in place,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters. “We think these steps are necessary and proportionate to allow passengers to travel safely.”
Terrorism analyst Greg Barton of Australia’s Deakin University said the action seems to be linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group’s affiliate active in Yemen and Saudi Arabia that has targeted airlines in the past.
“They’re clearly concerned about airports that are regarded as not being up to scratch on security, and other airports that are, while very good, dealing with massive flows of passengers that are coming through,” Barton told VOA. “Presumably the intelligence that triggered all of this is linked to AQAP in Yemen, and it may have come out of that rather disastrous raid that killed a U.S. soldier but nevertheless was said to have yielded valuable intelligence.”
Terrorist efforts ‘intensifying’
Private security experts on both sides of the Atlantic are divided on the wisdom of having electronic gadgets consigned to the hold, with some pointing out that airlines have become increasingly worried about the risk of lithium battery-powered items catching fire in the hold. Others said a bomb could still be triggered via a cellphone signal.
But a British intelligence official told VOA, “Consigning gadgets to the hold presents some serious obstacles for the bomb-maker, forcing him to design an automatic trigger device or timer that can be designed small enough to fit into an e-reader or a thin laptop.”
The TSA statement said, “Our information indicates that terrorist groups’ efforts to execute an attack against the aviation sector are intensifying given that aviation attacks provide an opportunity to cause mass casualties and inflict significant economic damage, as well as generate overwhelming media coverage.”
Airlines were notified of the increased security measures Tuesday and have until Friday to comply. No end date was included in the order, meaning it will extend indefinitely.
Several British airlines will be impacted by the British ban — including British Airways and low-cost carrier Easyjet, as well as package-vacation carriers Thomas Cook and Thomson. The British ban affects in-bound flights from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It is unclear why the U.S. and British bans do not exactly match when it comes to the airports and countries included.
No U.S. airline is impacted by the U.S. electronics ban — none fly direct to any of the countries listed by the Department of Homeland Security, which warns militants are seeking “innovative methods” to bring down jets amid concerns that bombs will be hidden in laptops.
A U.S. intelligence official dismissed claims by some security experts that the ban is as much politics-led as security-informed. He told VOA: “The ban is reflective of how sophisticated al-Qaida is becoming in the next generation of devices their bomb-makers are trying to develop.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have long been focused on militants in the Middle East exploring a new generation of non-metallic explosives unlikely to be detected by current airport security equipment.
In 2014 U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed by what they said was a teaming up of veteran jihadists in Syria with bomb-makers and terror planners from AQAP.
The group was behind the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 of Northwest Airlines flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who bungled the detonation of explosives sewn into his underwear. And it claimed responsibility for a 2010 cargo plane bomb plot foiled by British intelligence.
Al-Qaida isn’t the only group that’s prompting concern. Last year the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the side of the plane. The aircraft was still low enough that the pilot was able to land the plane safely.
Meanwhile. Turkey said Tuesday it would ask the U.S. to reverse the ban, which affects travelers departing for the U.S. from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.
VOA’s Jamie Dettmer and Victor Beattie contributed to this report.