Asia

22 Mar 2017
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Laptops: The New Terrorist Weapon?

The UK government has joined a restriction ban towards passengers flying from or through several Muslim majority countries. On Monday, the US Homeland Security Department announced that passengers coming from some countries in Middle East and North Africa will not be allowed to carry on-board electronic items larger than a smartphone. Originally, the action was taken as yet another fruitless attempt by president Trump to stop Muslim people from traveling to his country, but the support of the UK government put it into a different perspective.

Safety and security are the main reason the UK government backs the restriction. “Our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals,” Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary said. He also added that they’ve been working closely with the US officials to understand their approach and with the aviation industry to “minimise any impact”

However, there are a few differences between the two bans:

The Airlines

The US restriction points to only nine foreign companies – Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways and it doesn’t affect any American carriers. The UK government includes on their list six British airlines – British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson and another eight foreign carriers including Tunis Air, Egyptair and Royal Jordanian.

The airports

According to the US Department of Homeland Security, there are 10 potentially “dangerous” airports in 8 countries. These places are: Queen Alia International in Amman, Jordan; Cairo International in Egypt; Ataturk in Istanbul, Turkey; King Abdulaziz International in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; King Khalid International in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Kuwait International; Mohammed V International in Casablanca, Morocco; Hamad International in Doha, Qatar; Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The UK ban affects all the airports in six different countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

The devices

There is also a slight difference on what passengers aren’t allowed to carry on-board. The US Homeland Security ban states that “all electronic devices larger than an average-sized mobile phone, including game consoles” are forbidden without giving much detail. The British officials are more detailed and specify that the restriction applies to “electronic devices bigger than 16 centimeters in length, 9.3 cm in width and 1.5 cm thick”. That means that not only laptops or tablets will be affected, but also most of the e-readers like Kindle.

What is the danger?

According to the statement by Homeland Security: “Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.” Additionally in the report the cited the case of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 which exploded shortly after the plane took off from the Sharm El Sheikh International Airport in Egypt. A total of 224 passengers and crew members lost their lives in what was said to be a bomb attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The investigation didn’t confirm the exact reason for the crash but it is widely accepted that it was a bomb planted somehow by one of the passengers. The Homeland Security report also mentions an incident from February when the rebel group Shabaab, known for close connections with Al-Qaeda, said they managed to put a bomb into an electronic device. The bomb exploded shortly after the plane took off from Mogadishu airport, but luckily there were no casualties, apart from the suspected bomber.

Intelligence services from both sides of the Atlantic have apparently been working together, since, according to a British government source, the ban was issued “privy to the same intelligence”. However, they denied giving further details on exactly what incited the restriction.

Can laptops kill?

In theory, it’s considered possible that a bomb with a timer can be fitted into a laptop but it would require human interference to be activated. Additionally, the authorities believe, they could be discovered easier if stored into the hold because check-in baggage is often inspected by sniffer dog.

On the other hand, ISIS is known to have tested putting lithium laptop batteries in a microwave to cause an explosion. So, technically, if terrorists taken over a plane, they can use several laptop batteries and the on-board microwave to cause an explosion.  However, currently, due to several incidents caused by overheated batteries in the hold – lithium batteries are banned from being stored there. None of the restrictions clarify how that dilemma will be solved.

Experts from different fields including human rights organisations and risk management companies have already commented that the new ban will cause…

…More complications

All the flights included in the restriction are long, usually over 10 hours. The time spent on board is known to be used by many businessmen conducting some of their activities while flying. For them, not having the chance to work on their laptops “is a potential productivity killer,” according to Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, New York.

Another potential difficulty is the issue with human rights. Naureen Shah, Senior Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International USA, commented that the ban could provoke lawsuits from passengers who may consider that handling their confidential (private or business) information stored on the devices is violation of their rights. Journalists, in particular, could be very sensitive because the ban can lead to risk of “potentially compromising their sources”.

There is third issue that needs to be considered – stealing. Most of the electronic devices are expensive and a good target for thieves. It’s the passenger’s responsibility to provide strong locks for their luggage, but still, the danger exists and is much higher when the owner can’t see their belongings, says Anthony Roman president of Roman & Associates, a risk management firm.

Both of the bans are effective immediately and indefinitely. It is expected that applying the restrictions will cause additional setbacks while passengers board. Currently, France and Canada are also considering submitting a restriction for flights coming from Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa.

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A brief history of flight bans:

The main trigger for most of today’s strict security checks at the airports was 9/11. After that, in-flight security was taken to another level. No more blade are permitted on-board, no matter blunt or sharp, including your nail-scissors. Lots of sports equipment was banned from the cabin and ditched to the hold, including including baseball bats and martial arts instruments. Since 2002, passengers are also asked to take off their shoes. This rule appeared after an incident in December 2001, in which UK citizen Richard Reid tried to detonate an explosive hidden in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami.

The 100ml rule for liquids came after August 2006 when British authorities prevented a terrorist plot aiming to blow up several airplanes with liquid explosives.

In a flight from Dubai to London on October 28 2010, airport security service discovered packages of printer cartridges with hidden explosives. Ever since, printer cartridges are completely banned from commercial flights as well as all flammable products.