Citing Terror Threats, U.S. Bans Carry-On Electronic Devices From Middle East and North Africa Flights

Though the Department of Homeland Security did not reference a specific credible threat.

skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum on December 29, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 2-1 in the shootout.
skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum on December 29, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 2-1 in the shootout.

The U.S. government ordered nine airlines from the Middle East and North Africa to indefinitely ban electronic devices on direct flights to the United States from 10 airports. The ban covers almost all types of electronic devices in the cabin, except phones, small cameras, and approved medical devices.

The Department of Homeland Security did not cite any specific credible threat, but said in a statement Tuesday there are “reasons to be concerned” about terrorist attempts to circumvent aviation security. “The record of terrorist attempts to destroy aircraft in flight is longstanding and well-known,” the statement read. Terrorist groups are “aggressively pursuing innovative methods” to target airlines, including “smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The United Kingdom announced similar travel restrictions Tuesday. “We have been in close touch with the Americans to fully understand their position,” a British government spokesperson said. Britain ban most electronic devices on inbound flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. “We think these steps are necessary and proportionate to allow passengers to travel safely,” the spokesperson told reporters. 

It’s not clear why a “longstanding” threat to the United States requires action against a handful of international carriers at a limited number of airports. It comes just a month after President Donald Trump pledged to help U.S. airlines compete against government-subsidized carriers in the Persian Gulf, raising questions about whether the ban is more about putative terror risks or trade policy.

DHS cited recent terrorist attacks and attempts, such as the airliner downed in Egypt by a bomb in 2015; an attempted laptop bomb attack in a jet in Somalia in 2016; and armed attacks that year against airports in Brussels and Istanbul. But Brussels is not included in the ban, and it’s not clear what attacks on airports have to do with consumer electronics inside a plane’s cabin.

John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator for DHS, wondered about the timing of the ban, which reportedly was under consideration for several weeks. “Is there new intelligence or is this a reaction of new people to what is older intelligence?” he told Foreign Policy.

The ban will force passengers to check all electronics larger than a phone, including laptops, tablets, e-readers, and the like. It applies to nine airlines and 10 airports in the region with direct flights to the United States. U.S. airlines are not impacted by the ban, as none make direct flights from these airports.

The new restrictions impact: Egyptair, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Turkish Airlines. Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar are three government-subsidized airlines that U.S. carriers have complained about for years.

The affected airports are in: Amman, Jordan; Cairo; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Kuwait City; Casablanca; Doha, Qatar; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi. None of those countries were among the six Muslim-majority nations included in the Trump administration’s most recent travel ban, which was also ostensibly done on security grounds.

The airlines were formally notified early Tuesday morning and have until Saturday to comply. If airlines don’t comply, “we will work with the FAA to pull their certificate and they will not be allowed to fly to the United States,” one senior U.S. official told CNN.

A Saudia spokesperson told FP the Department of Transportation notified the airline of the ban and they would begin enforcing it Wednesday.

David Inserra, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said DHS likely is focused on countries where security at airports “maybe is not at a level we would like.” He added that the countries impacted are largely allies and partners of the United States. “They have been selected because there is a lot of travel between those countries and there’s an easier way to directly access the United States,” he told FP.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was briefed on the new security measures over the weekend and supported them. “These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat,” he said. “The global aviation system remains a top target and proper security requires that we continually adapt our defenses.”

But some aviation experts still questioned the purported security rationale behind the prohibition. It leaves nearly all airports that serve the United States unaffected; travelers from those Middle Eastern countries could easily catch a connecting flight to the United States from another airport, as the so-called “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did in 2009 when he attempted to attack on a U.S. airliner.

“There’s always a risk being too myopic in terms of focusing on the easiest pathway [terrorists] could take to the U.S.,” said Christian Beckner, a former Senate Homeland Security Committee staffer, now at George Washington University.

Bruce Schneier, a security expert, told the Guardian that the ban didn’t make much sense because “there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today.”

But Cohen, the former DHS official, said the ban could mean the department had discovered a new construct or bomb-making compound that current screening technologies aren’t programmed to discover. The list of countries covered in the ban include regions where terrorist bomb-makers with sophisticated technologies have been trying to figure out how to disrupt a U.S.-bound flight for years, he said.

“You have to think about this as an ongoing cat-and-mouse game, where bombmakers are studying the technologies that are used in airports to screen carry-on luggage,” he said. “They are trying to figure out ways to construct devices so screeners can’t detect them and they can then get an explosive onto an airplane.”

He said sequestering potential explosives in checked baggage, rather than the cabin, “wouldn’t cause that kind of catastrophic damage” if there were a bomb concealed in a small consumer electronic device. In the past, terrorists had to manually activate their bombs on planes, Beckner said — something they couldn’t easily do if the devices were locked away in cargo holds.

Another anonymous U.S. official told CNN the ban is based on intelligence indicating al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are nearing the ability to hide explosives that use minimal metal in electronic devices.

Cohen added that while it’s not unusual for evolving threats to require DHS to require temporary security measures, they usually are enforced with more haste.

“Once the decision was made that a threat warranted this type of action we move pretty quickly,” he said of his experience implementing similar temporary prohibitions. “It’s a little bit unusual that you’d announce it and say it will be effective in four days.”

Some suspected the ban could actually be related to protectionist measures; major U.S. airlines for years have been railing against what they call unfair competition due to government subsidies for Gulf carriers.

“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” Henry Farrell a professor at George Washington University, wrote in a Washington Post analysis. Unlike the U.S. security measures, Britain’s apply to its own airline companies, including British Airways. 

The ban was first revealed not by administration officials, but by a Royal Jordanian Airlines tweet that informed passengers of the directive Monday afternoon. The tweet was deleted hours later.

This article was updated at 1:20 p.m. EST to reflect new information on the United Kingdom’s new security restrictions. 

This article was updated at 2:36 p.m EST to include a quote from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Photo credit: BRUCE BENNETT/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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