Race to Prevent Airline Terror Turns to Laptops, Thin Bombs

  • U.S considering expanding electronics ban to European airports
  • New intelligence has concerned Homeland Security officials

European Airlines Prep for Wider Trump Laptop Ban

The never-ending race to stay ahead of the terrorists and their obsession with aviation has turned to laptops and other electronic devices.

First it was shoes, after a failed attempt to blow up a jetliner in 2001 with explosives-laden black hightops. Then liquids were banned in 2006 following the discovery of a U.K.-based plot. The nearly successful detonation of a bomb hidden in a passenger’s underwear in 2009 prompted body scanners and aggressive patdowns.

Now, airlines and travelers are girding for one of the most disruptive new security restrictions since Sept. 11, 2001, as the U.S. appears close to expanding a ban on laptops and other large electronics from cabins on flights leaving Europe for America.

New restrictions on electronics, if they happen, would be the latest escalation in the cat-and-mouse game of security forces defending against increasingly sophisticated terrorists, said Jeffrey Price an aerospace professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver who specializes in aviation security. It’s the culmination of years of growing signs that groups including Islamic State and al-Qaeda are becoming more adept at building and concealing explosives, Price said.

“There’s been, for about four years now, an articulated threat that people will try to smuggle bombs in laptops,” he said.

Related story: Airlines Fret About Laptop Ban From Europe in Peak Season

Also driving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are two successful bombings of aircraft in the past two years linked to smuggled explosives: a Russian charter plane in Egypt in 2015 that killed all 224 people aboard and a Somali airliner in 2016 that was able to land with a gaping hole in its side from a device hidden in a laptop.

The U.S. decreed March 21 that electronic devices larger than mobile phones -- including tablets, laptops and DVD players -- couldn’t be carried in airliner cabins on flights originating from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Those devices need to be placed in checked bags.

Now the U.S. is considering applying restrictions to flights originating in Europe. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is meeting with European Commission officials on Wednesday to discuss the issue.

There have been growing indications that groups targeting aviation have a better sense of what the technology at airport screening portals can and can’t detect, said John Halinski, a former deputy administrator at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration who is now a security consultant. Halinski said he was speaking generally and wasn’t privy to the latest intelligence.

Read more: Brace for Chaos If U.S. Expands Airline Laptop Ban

“They’ve been building very thin explosives,” Halinski said. “They are so thin the X-ray machines can’t see them.”

While the actual intelligence hasn’t been publicly released, officials say it has convinced them they have to act.

“It’s real,” Kelly said April 5 in testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “I think it’s getting realer so to speak. We may take measures in the not too distant future to expand the number of airports.”

The intelligence behind the ban became the subject of controversy on Monday. The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump described details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft in his Oval Office meeting last week with Russian officials. The revelation of highly classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak raised alarms among U.S. intelligence officials who feared the disclosure of a secret source.

H.R. McMaster, the U.S. national security adviser, said in a statement that Trump merely reviewed threats to aviation with the Russians but didn’t reveal intelligence sources or methods.

The Laptop Ban and What It Means for Air Travel: QuickTake Q&A

Information on how much explosive is required to bring down an airliner is classified, but a device placed next to the fuselage or a potentially volatile fuel tank would require a less powerful charge to be catastrophic. If detonated at cruising altitude, even a small amount of explosive could blow a hole in the side of a plane, causing a violent decompression that could rip the aircraft apart.

On Feb. 2, 2016, a laptop smuggled aboard a Daallo Airlines Airbus SE A321 flying from Mogadishu to Djibouti exploded at a window seat on the right side of the plane, blasting open a hole several feet high and ejecting the man authorities believe brought the bomb aboard. The plane was at about 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), well below the cruising altitude where a sudden decompression would have been more violent, and pilots were able to return to Mogadishu safely.

Both the Daallo bombing and the Metrojet attack over Egypt on Oct. 21, 2015, which tore the plane apart, were done with the assistance of airport insiders, according to accounts in London-based Aviation Security International Magazine.

If terrorist groups can infiltrate an airport and bypass security, that creates yet another reason to prevent larger electronics in aircraft cabins, Price said.

Pan Am

Moving a bomb into the cargo area instead of the cabin isn’t a fool-proof method of protecting a plane. Pan Am Flight 103 was brought down in 1988 over Scotland by a bomb hidden in a radio, investigators concluded.

But there are multiple factors that make a small explosive device less risky if it’s routed to the cargo area, Price and Halinski said.

Explosive-detection machines used for checked bags are better able to detect bombs, they said. And terrorists wouldn’t be able to ensure a bomb is placed next to the fuselage where it would do the most damage. Luggage surrounding a device that explodes would mute the blast’s impact, possibly limiting damage to the plane, they said.

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