Do electronics bans on flights make the U.S. safer?

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Following the announcement that the U.S. would restrict carry-on electronics for passengers entering the country from certain Middle Eastern and North African airports, travelers and industry professionals alike spoke out, railing against the rules and probing the administration's motives.

“I do not believe targeting some of the world's most high tech and advanced airports makes sense. To me this reeks of security theater, scare tactics, and a direct blow to the ME3 carriers that the U.S. has been complaining about for years,” Brian Kelly, a.k.a. The Points Guy told Travel + Leisure.

“It’s idiocy that’s going to inconvenience millions of passengers,” he said.

The new regulation forces people flying to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa to put any electronics larger than a cell phone into their checked bags. The airports on the list include some of the U.S.'s closest allies in the region and are located in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, according to a fact sheet provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Officials from the department insisted that the restrictions were based on intelligence concerning a credible threat of terrorists building bombs disguised inside large electronics, saying the order was a necessary inconvenience.

Data on airline and airport attacks from the past 10 years, coupled with expert analysis from security officials, paints a different picture, however, questioning whether this type of added security will prevent future attacks. Favoring stronger intelligence and monitoring over additional airport measures would instead better protect the U.S., according to experts.

“Someone who wants to attack, will. They will always find a point of weakness,” Axel Dyèvre, a former French military officer and managing partner of the European Strategic Intelligence Company, told T+L. Dyèvre noted that more effective intelligence gathering was the most certain method for preventing future casualties.

“The real problem is that they need to know who is going to attempt an attack before they do it,” he said.

Terrorists and militants have carried out some 247 attacks on airlines and airports in the past 10 years, according to the Global Terrorism Database. Of those 247, at least 27 have produced four or more casualties.

Not a single one of these 27 highly fatal attacks involved an assailant who passed through security checks with a bomb on their person, and only two of the attacks took place in North America or Europe. As airport security worldwide has tightened in the wake of 9/11, terrorists increasingly target zones such as the check-in areas or the arrival gates instead of trying to get on the planes themselves.

Brussels airport
Passengers evacuate Brussels airport following a terror attack March 22, 2016. Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

This type of attack is what occurred in Belgium exactly one year ago today, when several terrorists used nail bombs at Zaventem airport outside of Brussels as part of a coordinated assault that killed 32 people. A similar attack took place in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport just months later, killing 45 people.

Bans on electronics do nothing to protect from these kind of attacks, which have comprised nearly half of the most deadly airport assaults in the past 10 years, according to analysis of the same Global Terrorism Database information.

“Terrorists, more and frequently, are attacking before security,” Dyèvre confirmed.

It also remains unclear whether forcing people to check such electronics would prevent a bomb from being detonated. Presumably, a passenger in the cabin could set a bomb off inside his checked baggage with the proper kind of detonation.

DHS pointed to a case in 2016 when a Somali man was able to board a flight in Mogadishu with a laptop bomb and then detonate it on the plane. The plot was a relative failure however, as only the assailant was killed and several others were injured.

Meanwhile, frequent business travelers know the necessity of being able to have access to a laptop on board. Many of the people traveling to the U.S. from Dubai and other major Middle Eastern metropolises are coming to conduct business, and preventing them from using their laptop during a 15-hour flight essentially causes them to lose an entire work day.

These devices often also contain proprietary information that could easily be stolen or misplaced inside checked luggage.

“Without any explanation, the United States government banned major electronic devices that constitute the basic tools of business travel from the cabins of flights from select airports in the Middle East,” Greeley Koch, the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) told a travel blog.

“The restrictions make no sense. Assuming there is a new terrorist technology, there is nothing to stop someone from carry[ing] one of these devices to Amsterdam, and then boarding a flight to the U.S. or the U.K.,” he added.

The DHS intelligence that assumes terrorists are focused on laptop bombs remains vague and unconfirmed. It is possible that the U.S. is indeed acting on a specific credible threat, according to Ewan Lawson, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former Royal Air Force officer.

“The more difficult it becomes, the more creative terrorists and others become,” he said, adding, “There’s always a game going on between terrorists and counter-terrorists.”

Whether the restrictions are based on a credible threat or not, Lawson also reiterated that the only way to prevent an attack is through better intelligence. By the time someone shows up at an airport armed with a bomb or assault rifle, the options available to protect civilians are severely limited.

“Intelligence and surveillance are the keys to success in all of this,” said Lawson.

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