There’s a new ban. From the end of this week, passengers on certain airlines traveling from varied Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa to the U.S. and Britain will have to check their laptop-sized electronic devices.
The U.S. and the U.K. say the restrictions are motivated by generalized threat assessments rather than new, specific intelligence. And that may well be true. It’s notable, for example, that there are distinct differences between the U.S. and the British bans. Both include flights from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but the U.K. ban includes all air carriers (including those that are British-flagged). The U.S. ban includes only foreign-owned carriers. Additionally, only the U.S. ban includes Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. And only the U.K. ban includes flights from Lebanon and Tunisia. These divergences evidence distinct airport-threat assessments from the British and U.S. intelligence communities.
But it’s clear that there’s more to this story. For a start, this ban is no small inconvenience. It will prevent entertainment and business on major long-haul flight routes. It will thus cause economic inefficiencies and passenger dissatisfaction. Moreover, it risks diplomatic outcry from affected states. Turkey has already protested. Most compelling, though, is the simultaneous U.S.-U.K. action. As the two closest partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing relationship, the U.S. and the U.K. exchange any relevant counterterrorism intelligence reports.
In that context, I suspect that the primary concern here is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). First, AQAP has the most credible access to airport facilities in Saudi Arabia. It was also the target of a recent, controversial U.S. counterterrorism raid in Yemen. U.S. officials have said that raid was intended to gather intelligence specific to threats against the West. AQAP is also the global leader in airborne improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Defined by its bomb-making maestro, Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP has long been determined to smuggle explosives onto a Western airliner. And Asiri has shown remarkable innovation. His previous attack methodologies have included IEDs hidden in printers, underwear, and his brother’s rectum. But Asiri’s main skill is in turning commonly transported objects into hard-to-detect IEDs. Hence his interest in the bulky laptop. Western concerns have escalated in the aftermath of the near-catastrophic bombing of a Somali airliner in February 2016. The party responsible in that incident, al-Shabaab, was able to smuggle an IED on board, some reports say, via a laptop.
Nevertheless, the varied inclusion of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia in the two bans also suggests the involvement of Syrian-based terrorist organizations. While the Daesh (ISIS) threat is proved by its November 2015 IED downing of an Egypt-to-Russia flight, it is far from the only Syria-related concern. Reports in recent years also point to Asiri sharing his craft with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, now named Tahrir al-Sham (which pretends it is not al-Qaeda but actually is).
Regardless, the truth is that passenger airliners — especially those traveling to the West — remain a fetishized target for many different transnational Salafi-jihadist groups. That’s because the jihadists see these attacks as the best way to replicate the effects of 9/11. Those attacks are lauded by jihadists for their indiscriminate and bloody nature (many Westerners got on planes and then disappeared), symbolic impacts (Western capitalism and freedom were rendered vulnerable), and their second- and third-order effects (civilian fear, damage to the economy, and expensive changes to civil society). The 9/11 attacks also made al-Qaeda the go-to global jihadist brand. And in 2017, with Daesh and al-Qaeda competing for the prestigious post of global jihadist top dog, airliners again represent a salivating target.
Passenger airliners traveling to the West remain a fetishized target for many transnational Salafi-jihadist groups.
Still, there is something weird about the U.S. ban. Unlike the U.K.’s, the U.S. ban excludes U.S. airliners from the listed nations. But while U.S. carriers do tend to cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism authorities more than foreign airlines do, the threat to the American airliners is not substantially smaller. On the contrary, it may even be greater: Terrorists would prefer to blow up an American airliner rather than a passenger jet from a Muslim-majority country. And whatever the airline, an IED-bearing bomber will not be on the no-fly list. He (or she) will be an apparently law-abiding member of the public with all his paperwork in order. Quite possibly, as was likely intended in al-Qaeda’s 2006 transatlantic plot, the terrorist may take his child with him, to avoid scrutiny. Sparing U.S. carriers from these restrictions does not seem prudent.
Ultimately, these bans are not simply about security. They are about political cover. Western authorities know that a terrorist will someday succeed in bringing down a Western airliner. Hence the limits and restrictions on what passengers can take into a plane’s passenger cabin. Yes, cell phones and baby solution will still be carry-on items, but cell phones and baby solution can also hide different types of bombs. The authorities must believe that would be a ban too far. Instead, this ban offers a preemptive effort by the authorities to say, “Look, we tried our best.”
In the end, the best way to protect passenger jets is to eliminate bomb-makers such as Ibrahim al-Asiri.