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 U.S. and the U.K.:
A clear and detailed cause of the ban has not yet been disclosed since its enforcement, which took effect at the end of March. Unfortunately, digging into the possible reasons carries the risk of drowning in murky waters: the world of intelligence and the world of politics. Nevertheless, I will try to reason towards the answer 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 explaining that new information complements older information in justifying the ban as an urgent and necessary protection measure for U.S. and U.K. nationals, given a persistent and growing interest in targeting commercial aviation and hubs of transport. Radical organisations are aggressively moving towards the use of Electronics-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (EBIED) that are difficult to detect by current airport security measures. This reminds me of a previous post entitled “Who is making the bombs”, in which I discuss the explosions of things becoming an analogous concept to the internet of things – meaning that we are approaching an era in which a bomb can be delivered through nearly every existing object. Attacking commercial flights with explosives has happened before, and there is no question that all necessary steps must be taken to eradicate any chances of it happening again.
Was the enforcement too quick and therefore too harsh on several peoples and commercial flight companies?
However, the reality and seriousness of the threat can be conveyed just by considering the most recent attack of the sort. On 2 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 area shown in the map above?
Did newly gathered information flag these countries in particular?
One superficial reason is that these are hotspots for violent acts in the name of Islam – the area’s predominant religion. However, many countries in Asia and Africa that are similarly characterised were still excluded from the ban. Additionally, recent attacks planned for and executed in Europe and the Commonwealth countries suggest that the risk of radicalisation is uncontainable. Moreover, decisions taken at the level of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.K.’s Home office are expected to come from a careful evaluation of specific evidence rather than simplistic ideologies.
Finally, both governmental organisations are not currently advising against traveling to the affected countries. I am therefore inclined to think about the ban as selective of specific airports rather than targeting countries or governments or people.
So what makes the twelve airports cited below an adequate selection for the on-cabin large-electronics ban? (around 300 other airports serve as last departure points to the U.S. / U.K.)
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.)
The information shared with the public on this question is sparse. 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 new information collected during the raid on Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.
Setting aside the question of why these twelve airports were selected, what might be the motives and advantages of implementing such a localised measure?
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.
It is the first area of operation that is relevant to the ban. The individuals of interest, in this case the criminals, must not reach the airways while carrying their explosives, i.e. the EBIED. Below are three interrelated goals that I think the ban attempts to target:
a) Disrupt the motive to do harm
b) Deceive the enemy
c) Push to improve airport and aviation security
Let us address them individually:
a) Disrupt the motive to do harm:
The 1995 Bojinka plot, the 2006 Transatlantic plot, and the 9/11/2001 New-York attack are a few examples that show the intent of these criminal organisations to kill in the most ostentatious way possible. Recent ISIS movie production is another example of how such groups theatricalise and commodify mass murder. With regards to motives such as seeking worldwide attention, disrupting global economies and challenging governments, the ban minimised the risk of sending a symbolic message written in the blood of thousands of people through multiple airways connecting the Levant and North Africa to the U.S. and the U.K. . Having said this, the question of excluding other airports that can be as symbolic as the Arabic and Turkish regions (for example central Asia and Africa) becomes even more confusing.
b) Deceive the enemy:
Deception can very well be the chosen method to foil a presumed plot that, if allowed to happen, will be as consequential as 9/11.
- Appear confused:
The discrepancy between the U.K. and the U.S. communicates an apparent confusion around the current threat’s geolocation (The U.K. excludes Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and UAE airports from the ban). However, the likelihood that only few of the twelve selected airports or completely different ones do represent the real threat still exists. Additionally, this ban allows for a “behind the walls” inspection of the checked-in electronic devices whether the aim is to detect EBIEDs or collect any digital information from a device of interest. It is believed that a covert operation to inspect a suspect’s checked-in baggage helped foil the 2006 Transatlantic plot. If true, these situations would represent an effort at misleading the criminals by showing the decision makers as confused in what they should be looking for and where.
- Make use of the loopholes:
I see a high potential for deception through the imperfections in a security measure. For example, it is conceivable that under the liquids ban (100mL max per passenger), multiple passengers can still scheme to bring enough LAGs to construct a bomb post-security checkpoint. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) explains this gap as “truly classified”. In what concerns the current ban on electronics, the possibility of executing a mid-flight EBIED attack via indirect travel is a striking loophole.
c) Push to improve airport and aviation security:
Airports in general, tend to use multiple layers of security measures for both compliance and commercial purposes. A couple of weeks after the electronics ban (April 11), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) handed over to the security services at Rafic Hariri International Airport $650 000 in passengers and bags screening equipment. The donation was publicly described to include material concerning vehicles entering the airport, hand-held explosives residues, dangerous LAGs and passengers’ shoes. Quite interestingly, there was no mention of Millimeter Wave Scanners against body worn non-metallic threats or Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) applied to the luggage conveyor belts. Finally, the hope is that a state-of-the-art training is being given to each of our security members in addition to a thorough and continuous vetting of key security and staff members; as the human element is the crucial element for a strong airport security.