What prompted the elec­tronic de­vices ban

Al­though Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have said there was no spe­cific in­tel­li­gence be­hind the ban, the man­ner in which it was in­sti­tuted would seem to sug­gest that like past sud­den changes, there was.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Scott Ste­wart

On the af­ter­noon of March 20, Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines an­nounced on Twit­ter that ef­fec­tive March 21, it would ban all elec­tronic items from pas­sen­ger cab­ins of its air­craft trav­el­ing di­rectly to and from the United States with the ex­cep­tion of cell­phones and med­i­cal de­vices. The an­nounce­ment, which was later deleted from the air­line's Twit­ter ac­count, noted that the se­cu­rity mea­sures were be­ing in­sti­tuted at the re­quest of "con­cerned U.S. De­part­ments." The U.S. gov­ern­ment soon con­firmed the ban and added that, in ad­di­tion to Royal Jor­da­nian, it ap­plied to flights from eight other air­lines orig­i­nat­ing from 10 air­ports in eight Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries.

The air­ports cov­ered by the ban are lo­cated in Cairo, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Is­tan­bul, Doha, Am­man, Kuwait City, Casablanca, Jeddah and Riyadh. The air­lines af­fected in­clude Eti­had Air­ways, Egyp­tAir, Qatar Air­ways, Emi­rates Air­lines, Kuwait Air­ways, Royal Air Maroc, Saudi Ara­bian Air­lines and Turk­ish Air­lines. A U.S. Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion no­tice re­port­edly gave the af­fected air­lines 96 hours to im­ple­ment the new se­cu­rity mea­sures. Non­com­pli­ance would re­sult in their los­ing au­tho­riza­tion to land in the United States. U.S. air­lines were not af­fected by the mea­sure be­cause none of them fly from the af­fected air­ports to the United States.

The im­ple­men­ta­tion of this se­cu­rity mea­sure so abruptly is rem­i­nis­cent of past U.S. air­craft bans. In Au­gust 2006, liq­uids were sud­denly banned from air­craft pas­sen­ger cab­ins in re­ac­tion to the dis­cov­ery of a plot to use liq­uid bombs to at­tack U.S.-bound air­craft. Then in Fe­bru­ary 2014, all gels and liq­uids in car­ryon lug­gage were banned on flights from Rus­sia to the United States in re­sponse to in­tel­li­gence per­tain­ing to an al­leged plot to smug­gle ex­plo­sives dis­guised as tooth­paste aboard air­craft. Al­though Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have been quoted in the press as say­ing there was no spe­cific in­tel­li­gence be­hind the ban, the man­ner in which it was in­sti­tuted would seem to sug­gest that like past sud­den changes, it is in re­ac­tion to re­cently ob­tained in­tel­li­gence.

Some me­dia sources have in­di­cated that they be­lieve the ban is po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated or some sort of pro­tec­tion­ist mea­sure in­tended to hurt Mid­dle East­ern air­lines, but on March 21, Reuters re­ported that the United King­dom had in­sti­tuted a sim­i­lar ban, in­di­cat­ing that the mea­sure is in­deed based on se­cu­rity con­cerns. There are also re­ports that Canada will soon in­sti­tute a sim­i­lar ban.

Pos­si­ble AQAP Con­nec­tion

Some me­dia re­ports are sug­gest­ing that this warn­ing is con­nected to al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP) and its re­search to con­ceal ex­plo­sives in­side the bat­ter­ies of elec­tronic items. Given the group's his­tory of at­tempted at­tacks against U.S. air­craft – the 2009 un­der­wear bomb­ing at­tempt against North­west Air­lines Flight 253, the failed 2010 at­tack on a cargo air­craft us­ing bombs hid­den in com­puter print­ers, and a sec­ond un­der­wear bomb plot with an im­proved de­vice in 2012 – sus­pi­cion of AQAP is rea­son­able. Also, U.S. airstrikes have taken a heavy toll on the group's lead­er­ship, giv­ing it am­ple cause for re­venge. AQAP also has the bomb­mak­ing trade­craft to con­struct such a de­vice, and its bomb­mak­ers are known to have con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search on coun­ter­ing air­port se­cu­rity screen­ing mea­sures. A re­port by ABC news in­di­cates that fears about the Is­lamic State prompted the warn­ing, but AQAP is a more cred­i­ble sus­pect based on its past his­tory.

In fact, AQAP may have been be­hind the sud­den ap­pear­ance of bombs con­cealed in lap­top com­put­ers in So­ma­lia in 2016. The group is tightly con­nected to Al Shabaab, which claimed the So­mali at­tack last Fe­bru­ary against Daallo Air­lines flight D3159. The blast killed the bomber and forced an emer­gency land­ing. A sec­ond bomb in a lap­top com­puter ex­ploded the fol­low­ing month at an air­port in the So­mali town of Beled­weyne be­fore it could be taken aboard the air­craft. These in­ci­dents could have been part of a test to gauge the de­vices' ef­fec­tive­ness. And be­cause the war in Ye­men has stopped all flights from AQAP's main op­er­at­ing area, it fol­lows that the group might have co­or­di­nated with al Shabaab to test its lap­top com­puter ex­plo­sive de­vices.

This type of test­ing is not un­usual and would be sim­i­lar to an in­ci­dent in De­cem­ber 1994 when a de­vice hid­den in a baby doll was tested on Philip­pine Air­lines Flight 434. The baby doll bomb did not take down flight 434, and the plot­ters de­ter­mined they needed to go back to the draw­ing board to cre­ate a more pow­er­ful de­vice be­fore widely de­ploy­ing them against U.S. air­lin­ers in a wave of at­tacks named Op­er­a­tion Bo­jinka. The Daallo bomb in So­ma­lia did not de­stroy that flight, and if it was a test it could have prompted some ad­just­ments to the bomb.

Hid­den Bombs

What isn't spec­u­la­tion is that there is a long his­tory of bomb­ing at­tacks against air­craft. One rea­son is be­cause rel­a­tively small quan­ti­ties of ex­plo­sives on an air­plane can cre­ate a cat­a­strophic in­ci­dent that can kill all on board. It's im­por­tant to note, how­ever, that as demon­strated by the ex­am­ples of Philip­pine Air­lines Flight 434 and Daallo 3159 – along with sev­eral oth­ers, such as Pan Am Flight 830 in 1982 and TWA Flight 840 in 1986 – air­frames are more dif­fi­cult to bring down than many peo­ple think.

Per­haps more im­por­tant is the mas­sive me­dia at­ten­tion that any at­tack against air­craft – even if un­suc­cess­ful – gen­er­ates in the me­dia, as have these new se­cu­rity mea­sures. As we have dis­cussed in the past, this level of me­dia ex­po­sure serves as a sig­nif­i­cant ter­ror mag­ni­fier, and past at­tacks against air­craft such as Pan Am 103, TWA 847 and the 9/11 at­tacks have be­come iconic im­ages of ter­ror.

The power of these im­ages has cre­ated a fix­a­tion with at­tacks against air­craft that per­sists to­day. The at­trac­tion tran­scends ide­olo­gies – we have seen op­er­a­tives of var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal per­sua­sions con­duct ter­ror­ist at­tacks against air­craft, in­clud­ing Marx­ists, anti-Cas­tro Cubans, Sikhs as well as North Korean and Libyan gov­ern­ment agents. Ji­hadists have been plot­ting at­tacks against air­craft since the early 1990s.

Past at­tacks have re­sulted in se­cu­rity en­hance­ments, which have them­selves led cre­ative bomb­mak­ers to change their meth­ods of con­ceal­ing bombs. An evo­lu­tion­ary arms race be­tween bomb­mak­ers and avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials has en­sued. In ad­di­tion to the meth­ods of hid­ing ex­plo­sives men­tioned in the plots dis­cussed ear­lier, past plots have in­volved ex­plo­sives cam­ou­flaged in any num­ber of ways, from TNT melted and casted into the shape of a tea set to ex­plo­sives hid­den in liquor bot­tles and shoes.

Elec­tron­ics have long been a pop­u­lar choice for bomb­mak­ers look­ing to smug­gle im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices aboard planes. Per­haps the most fa­mous case is the Libyan-con­structed de­vice con­cealed in­side a Toshiba ra­dio cas­sette player that was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103. Sim­i­lar de­vices hid­den in an­other model of Toshiba cas­sette player were found in a raid on a Pop­u­lar Front for the Liberation of Pales­tine-Gen­eral Com­mand safe-house in Ger­many a few months be­fore the Pan Am 103 bomb­ing.

In 1987, North Korean agents de­stroyed Korean Air Flight 858 us­ing a mod­u­lar ex­plo­sive de­vice de­sign in which the fir­ing train and a small charge of C4 were con­cealed in­side a ra­dio, which was then used to ini­ti­ate the main charge of Pi­catinny Liq­uid Ex­plo­sive hid­den in a liquor bot­tle. In 1986, Nezar Hin­dawi, a Jor­da­nian who later ac­knowl­edged work­ing for Syr­ian in­tel­li­gence, gave his un­wit­ting and preg­nant Ir­ish girl­friend an IED con­cealed in a bag to take on an El Al flight from Lon­don to Tel Aviv. The timer and det­o­na­tor for the de­vice were con­cealed in a pocket cal­cu­la­tor, and the main ex­plo­sive charge was hid­den in the suit­case un­der a false bot­tom. El Al se­cu­rity de­tected the de­vice be­fore it could be taken aboard the plane, and Hin­dawi was quickly ar­rested. One dif­fer­ence be­tween the de­vices seen in So­ma­lia last year and these ear­lier bombs is that the ear­lier de­vices used timers or al­ti­tude switches to det­o­nate them. The lap­top bombs in So­ma­lia last year were com­mand-det­o­nated sui­cide de­vices.

Based on the stip­u­la­tions of the new ban, this ap­pears to be pre­cisely the type of bomb it was in­tended to de­fend against, which sug­gests that there is in­tel­li­gence that a mil­i­tant group may have one or more de­vices of this type whose lo­ca­tion is un­known.

One draw­back of this type of spe­cific warn­ing is that it tends to fo­cus at­ten­tion nar­rowly on one type of con­ceal­ment tac­tic, per­haps di­vert­ing the at­ten­tion of se­cu­rity of­fi­cers away from other forms of con­ceal­ment and ac­ti­va­tion. Cer­tainly if AQAP or an­other group did have such a de­vice man­u­fac­tured and was plan­ning to use it in an at­tack against a U.S.-bound air­liner, this ban will force the plot­ters to ad­just, ei­ther by chang­ing the method of con­ceal­ment or by at­tempt­ing to smug­gle the de­vice to an­other air­port. Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab, the at­tacker in the failed 2009 un­der­wear bomb plot, boarded his U.S.-bound flight from Schiphol air­port in the Nether­lands, and failed shoe bomber Richard Reid boarded Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 63 at Charles de Galle Air­port in Paris, prov­ing that at­tacks di­rected against the U.S. home­land don't have to orig­i­nate in the Mid­dle East. In­evitably, if elec­tron­ics are banned from air­craft cab­ins glob­ally, at­tack­ers will sim­ply seek a new method of con­ceal­ment or a new way to det­o­nate them in the cargo hold.

The Wider Im­pli­ca­tions

I see a close par­al­lel be­tween drug smug­gling ef­forts and bomb smug­gling ef­forts, and many of the meth­ods men­tioned above for cam­ou­flag­ing ex­plo­sives have also been used for smug­gling nar­cotics. As avi­a­tion se­cu­rity mea­sures have evolved and adapted to drug smug­gling ef­forts, nar­cotics "mules" have adapted as well, us­ing ev­ery­thing from body cav­i­ties to drug-filled cloth­ing to smug­gle con­tra­band.

This his­tory of adap­tive bomb­mak­ing and nar­cotics smug­gling high­lights the fact that it is im­pos­si­ble to use tech­ni­cal screen­ing mea­sures to ab­so­lutely pre­vent any ex­plo­sive ma­te­rial from be­ing brought on board an air­craft. Even prison au­thor­i­ties who can use mag­ne­tome­ters and strip searches to screen pris­on­ers have failed to pre­vent all con­tra­band from slip­ping through their sys­tem. And there is al­ways the threat of items be­ing in­tro­duced onto air­craft by ground crews, as may have been the case with Metro­jet Flight 9268, which was de­stroyed by a bomb shortly af­ter it de­parted from Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in Oc­to­ber 2015.

Does this mean that all changes in air pas­sen­ger screen­ing are fu­tile? No. At the very least, such mea­sures pre­vent low-level threats from suc­ceed­ing, and any­one who might have a de­vice dis­guised in a lap­top com­puter will have to take some time to re­tool.

But it also means that, given enough per­sis­tence and in­no­va­tion, some­one will even­tu­ally pass a de­vice through the sys­tem. That next de­vice might func­tion bet­ter than the shoe bomb, the un­der­wear bomb, or the So­ma­lia lap­top bombs – cases in which dis­as­ter was only nar­rowly averted. When the next at­tack hap­pens, the public needs to main­tain a re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion of avi­a­tion se­cu­rity and not as­cribe to the at­tack­ers some su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties or make to­tally un­re­al­is­tic de­mands of pas­sen­ger screen­ers that cost large amounts of money and still fail to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity. The world is a dan­ger­ous place, and there are evil peo­ple who wish to com­mit atroc­i­ties against other hu­man be­ings. Oc­ca­sion­ally they suc­ceed, but un­til that next hap­pens, the arms race be­tween bomb­mak­ers and avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials will con­tinue.

Scott Ste­wart

Im­age of scanned carry-on lug­gage

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