This post is meant as a platform to think about the ban on electronic devices larger than 16.0 x 9.3 x 1.5 (cm) as carry-on for all passengers flying directly from the ten countries mapped below to the USA or to the UK:
A clear and detailed cause of the ban has not been disclosed since it took effect at the end of March 2017. Digging into the possible reasons carries the risk of drowning in the murkiest waters: the world of intelligence and the world of politics. Nevertheless, I will try to think about it in the most appropriate way, and would appreciate you joining me in this quest.
In summary, what do we know about the ban?
Media reports cite intelligence sources talking about new information complementing previous data, and justify the ban as an urgent and necessary protection measure, given the persistent and growing interest in targeting civilian transport hubs.
The information seems to point at violent organisations who are plotting to use Electronics-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (new term: EBIED) that are difficult to detect by conventional security measures found in many airports.
This reminds me of my previously written post “Who is making the bombs”, when the concept of the explosions of things is compared to today’s well known internet of things – meaning that we might approach an era where every existing object can deliver a bomb. As one member of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told me once: “if you can imagine it, then you can make it”.
The bombing of commercial flights has happened before, and there is no question that all necessary steps must be taken to eradicate any chances of it happening again.
It is true that the enforcement is harsh and unfair to several peoples, countries and commercial flight companies. However, the reality and seriousness of the threat cannot be undermined under any pretext. On 2nd February 2016, a suspected EBIED killed and ejected the perpetrator of the Somali Daallo Airlines flight 159 (fortunately only the perpetrator was killed and the aircraft made a safe emergency landing).
Why is this important?
Because it may help us understand a trend: In 1994, a contact-lens solution bomb on board of the Philippine Airlines (PA) flight 434 killed one person and wounded ten others. This bombing is understood to have been a “test-run” for a much larger-scale, deadlier terror plot planned for the following year, known as the Bojinka plot (which was thankfully foiled).
In light of this information, we must ask: Was the DA flight 159 incident similarly a “test-run” for an imminent full-scale attack?
And if so, why was the ban restricted to the specific Arabic area? Is the new information flagging these countries in particular?
One superficial reason is that these are hotspots for violent acts in the name of Islam – the geography’s predominant religion. However, many countries in Asia and Africa have been attributed to similar threats and were still excluded from the ban. Also, most attacks that were executed in Europe and the Commonwealth countries suggest that the risk of radicalisation is not contained in specific countries. Therefore, I think and hope that the US’s DHS and the UK’s Home office have made their decision based on relevant information rather than on simplistic ideologies.
So what makes the twelve airports an adequate geographical selection for the ban? (around 300 other airports serve as last departure points to the US and/or the UK)
The DHS published a Q&A around the time the ban was issued, explaining that the selection was made after a “current threat picture” was drawn in collaboration with its intelligence community partners. However, the DHS does not mention any particular ‘chatter’ or evidence collected during the last raid on Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. Not much is revealed about these airports’ selection.
From a security perspective, airports involve two major areas of operation:
- A rapid movement of individuals and goods through controlled gates connected by airways (air travel).
- A hub of large crowds requiring continuous protection and management (airport premises).
The ban targets an airborne activity. The individuals of interest, in this case the criminals, must not reach the airways while carrying theirEBIED. The following passage states two general goals that I think the ban is already achieving:
a) Improve international airport and aviation security:
Airports in general, tend to use multiple layers of security measures involving intelligence and on-sight surveillance. A couple of weeks after the electronics ban (April 11), the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) handed over to Rafic Hariri International Airport $650 000 in passengers and bags screening equipment. The donation was publicly described and includes vehicles screening, explosive residues, Liquids Aerosols and Gels (LAGs), as well as passengers’ shoes. Quite interestingly, there was no mention of Millimeter Wave Scanners to test against non-metallic threats, nor Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) applied to the luggage conveyor belts. I hope that our airport security members are undergoing state-of-the-art training, and are being efficiently vetted whenever appropriate. Investing in the the human element is as crucial as technology, if not more, for a strong airport security.
b) Deceive the enemy:
Deception is generally used to foil a plot. The airports selected by the UK do not necessarily overlap with those selected by the US. For example, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and UAE were excluded from the UK’s ban. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the intel differs between the two countries. Based on the same information, the two countries might be using different tactics. This discrepancy reveals that the threat is not the same in all twelve airports, and that much of the contextual information about the threat is kept in the dark.
A high potential for deception exists in the loopholes of a security measure. Under the current liquids ban for example, where each passenger is limited to a maximum of 100mL of liquids, you could still imagine a scenario where multiple passengers come together mid-flight and mix their respective liquids to construct a bomb. However, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not disclose everything about why this loophole is kept open, as this is “truly classified”. The electronics ban also has a striking loophole: what about using indirect flights to the US or the UK?
One last thing worth mentioning, is that the ban allows for a “behind the walls” inspection of all checked-in luggage. With this ban in effect, the passengers’ digital information is at risk of being secretly breached. It is believed that a covert operation of this sort was used to foil the 2006 Transatlantic plot.
Will we ever know the full-rationale behind this ban?
List of all twelve airports affected by the ban:
Abu Dhabi International – UAE (U.S.)
Queen Alia International– Jordan (U.S. and U.K.)
Beirut, Rafic Hariri International – Lebanon (U.K.; no direct flight to U.S.)
Cairo International – Egypt (U.S. and U.K.)
Mohammed V International – Morocco (U.S.)
Hamad International Airport – Qatar (U.S.)
Dubai International – UAE (U.S.)
Istanbul Atatürk – Turkey (U.S. and U.K.)
King Abdulaziz International – Saudi Arabia (U.S. and U.K.)
Kuwait International – Kuwait (U.S.)
King Khalid International – Saudi Arabia (U.S. and U.K.)
Tunis, Carthage International – Tunisia (U.K.; no direct flight to U.S.)