New airport screening for flights to U.S. targets terror plots
Alarm sounded on ‘web of threats’
Homeland Security officials sounded a major alarm Wednesday about the world’s airlines, revealing a “web of threats” they said prove terrorists remain determined to attack aircraft flying into the U.S. — and announcing a new round of increased screening for inbound passengers.
Secretary John F. Kelly decided against expanding the laptop ban, which applies to 10 foreign airports. He instead argued that enhanced screening worldwide can improve safety without resorting to the painful step of making passengers forgo their large electronics while sitting in the cabin.
He said there will be more bombsniffing dogs and tighter electronics screening, as well as other measures passengers won’t necessarily see.
Airlines that comply with the new secret directives will be allowed to fly into the U.S. with no restrictions, officials said, but those that fail to comply with the directives could have laptops and other large devices banned from flights or even lose their flight privileges into the U.S.
“Inaction is not an option,” Mr. Kelly said at the Center for a New American Security, where he declared the new steps as just a “starting point.”
Officials briefing reporters refused to say exactly what the enhanced methods would include or whether they would delay passengers. The department said that depends on how carriers and foreign airports implement the procedures, which appears aimed at trying to prevent terrorists from smuggling bombs hidden inside laptops on board a plane.
Mr. Kelly said the goals are to spot potential threats in the equipment passengers bring onto planes, to identify suspicious travelers and to sniff out “insider threats.”
Homeland Security officials say part of the web of threats they have detected recently involves terrorists hoping to recruit airport and airline “insiders” who would be in positions to cause serious damage.
For months, Mr. Kelly had been warning he would expand the ban that has been in place since March for flights
to the U.S. from 10 foreign airports, all serving predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East.
Airlines and European leaders vehemently fought an expansion of the ban on laptops, which applies to any electronic larger than a smartphone.
Wednesday’s policy appears to be an attempt to compromise, though department officials insisted they have not backed down but rather found a solution that could work for all sides.
Briefing reporters ahead of Mr. Kelly’s announcement, senior Homeland Security officials said the department for years had been playing catch-up to threats, including the underwear bomber, the danger from liquids and the potential of a laptop explosive.
Rather than banning a specific items, the officials said, their approach should step up the overall security environment.
The 10 airports where the laptop ban is in place can earn their way off the list if airlines there agree to the stricter screening, officials said.
Airlines prefer a more focused approach based on risk assessments at each airport instead of a worldwide set of procedures. But Homeland Security officials said they wanted to set an international standard.
“We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat,” Mr. Kelly said. “Instead, we must put in place new measures across the board to keep the traveling public safe and make it harder for terrorists to succeed.”
There are 280 international airports in 105 countries that have direct flights to the U.S. They average roughly 2,000 flights a day, totaling about 325,000 passengers.
The travel industry seemed resigned to the new procedures and praised the Trump administration for talking through the issues with stakeholders.
“We cannot push our travel system to the limit or risk the unintended consequences of too heavy a burden on airports, airlines and travelers. We must ensure security at all costs, but our government also has an imperative to keep trade and commerce flowing,” said Jonathan Grella, an executive vice president at the U.S. Travel Association.
He also urged the Trump administration to issue a welcoming message to international travelers along with the new security procedures.
The aviation system has been a target since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. In the years since, a number of plots have been thwarted, including those of Richard Reid, who attempted to detonate explosives in his shoes, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had plastic explosives in his underwear but botched the ignition attempt. Also averted was a 2006 plot in Britain to try to use liquids to make an explosive.
Mr. Kelly said terrorists still see an attack on commercial aviation as “the greatest takedown” and are searching for weak links to exploit.
The threat of explosives in large electronics came from intelligence gathered by Israel, which reportedly hacked into an Islamic State bombmaking cell and discovered the plot.
Flights within the U.S. won’t be affected because American airports already have enhanced measures, Homeland Security officials said.
“Inaction is not an option,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said about the tightened security measures for international flights into the U.S. He declared the new steps as just a “starting point.”