Can Terrorists Beat the U.S. Laptop Ban, Screening Technologies?

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Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security initiated new security measures for all international commercial flights bound to the United States, a move that could potentially lead to either the lifting or expansion of the laptop ban currently in place for direct flights of foreign airlines from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The Cipher Brief spoke with Robert Bunker, a Non-Resident Fellow for Counter-Terrorism at TRENDS Research & Advisory, about the terrorism developments that lead to the laptop ban in the first place, and why the DHS might have since changed course from its original stance.

The Cipher Brief: Traditionally, civil aviation has been the target of terrorist attacks. Could you explain why this might be and what measures airlines have taken, particularly against explosives?

Robert Bunker: Passenger airliner disasters – unintentional, intentional, or simple acts of god – have in the past and even still now result in immediate worldwide news coverage. Since terrorism represents a form of “disruptive targeting” aimed at changing governmental policies and/or societal norms by generating terror – derived from feelings of fear and ambiguity related to future threat potentials – in the leadership of targeted states and their populations, civil aviation makes for an ideal target set to communicate the effects of such attacks.

For about half a century now, terrorists have targeted airliners using one method or another, such as via hijackings, bombings, crashing them into buildings, or shooting them down. The use of explosive devices – either carried on into the passenger cabin or checked into cargo – is a common and effective form of attack. This threat has resulted in an “offensive and defensive cycle” to emerge between terrorists and the security professionals who are attempting to identify such devices during the airport passenger and baggage screening processes.

This has resulted in the emergence of metal detectors to identify the metal components found in bombs as well as in guns and knives, explosive residue sniffers and detectors, see-through clothing imagers, pat down protocols, and various behavioral anomaly identification and profiling techniques to be continually developed as terrorists keep adapting to our airport security defenses. The removal of shoes for x-raying purposes and the carry on limits placed on liquids/creams and their separation into clear plastic bags for scanning purpose are representative of this cat-and-mouse game that is still actively going on.            

TCB: There is a travel ban on laptops and similar electronic devices put in place since March 2017 for certain international flights. Could you talk about what this travel ban for carry on laptops involves?

Bunker: The actual U.S. ban specifics are posted on the DHS website. Examples of the large electronic devices precluded from the ten international airports specified – found in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – that can be carried into the main passenger cabin are; laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, portable DVD players, electronic game units larger than a smartphone, and travel printers/scanners. The ban, however, does not preclude such devices being checked into the passenger airliner’s cargo compartment – probably because such explosive device detonation is viewed as more difficult to achieve.

What is also of note is that these airports exist in regions where ISIS have a large presence as they service areas surrounding Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Additionally Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Al Qaeda Khorasan group – who are gaining technical bomb making information from AQAP with elements in Syria and Iraq – are also active in the area of the countries with these specific international airports.

TCB: Could you explain why this ban came about and why laptops present a danger to civilian airlines despite the prevalence of explosives detection x-rays and laptop forensics tests? How would terrorist organizations like ISIS know how to defeat these tests?

Bunker: The actual reasons the U.S. ban was implemented is shrouded in mystery – a recent laptop bombing event equivalent to the earlier shoe bombing or liquid bombing plot that triggered the other increased security protocols has not been reported in the media. This ban has taken place about 13 months after the Daallo Airlines Flight 159 laptop bombing incident out of Mogadishu in February 2016. That incident was linked to Al Shabab, with likely back end AQAP explosive device technical support, yet did not result in an immediate electronic devices ban. This could be because, while the explosive device was secreted in a computer CD drive, it may still have been detectable to current explosive screening capabilities as airport insiders helped the terrorist operative to get the laptop past passenger screening.

The ban, therefore, suggests that either AQAP has perfected a more undetectable bomb and some sort of new plot exists or possibly, and more likely, that ISIS is now actively contemplating such passenger airliner attacks. The reason that ISIS is such a concern is that they have had access to far greater scientific and technical capabilities than any terrorist group before them.

The seizure of Mosul – with its research university and the city’s international airport – allowed ISIS access to chemistry, medical, and engineering labs as well as some passenger screening systems. These labs – with their x-ray and other imagery equipment – and the security screening systems would provide ISIS the ability to “blue team” any explosive laden laptops or other electronics they create against something equivalent to our airport screening defenses.

Such a new terrorist capability – beyond anything possessed by AQAP – and a more recent willingness of ISIS to engage in airliner targeting may be underlying reasons why the specific last point of departure airport bans have gone into effect.

TCB: Have other countries followed suit with the travel bans on larger electronic devices? Why?

Bunker: The United Kingdom implemented its own laptop and similar electronic devices ban the same day as the U.S. ban was enacted. This ban effects last point of departure airports to the UK that are situated in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Because a different set of last point of departure countries have been designated than are present in the U.S. ban and some differences in banned electronic devices exist, airline travellers have naturally become confused concerning the specifics of these bans.

It is assumed that the UK enacted the ban simultaneously with the U.S., because intelligence related to this threat is being shared by these two close allies and that the specifics of that intelligence warranted the decision to proactively enact these bans before airliners en route to those two countries from last point of departure airports of concern were targeted by radical Islamist terrorists. Why France, Belgium, Germany, and other Western countries that are actively being targeted by such terrorists via other modes of attack – bombings, vehicular overruns, active shooters, and knifings – have not felt compelled to establish similar bans is unknown.  

TCB: DHS recently announced requirements for airlines to implement new security protocols, which, should they not comply, could result in the travel ban for laptops being expanded to become more encompassing.  What are these new security protocols and are the demands in line with national security interests?

Bunker: Talk previously existed – per Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statements – that the U.S. ban could be extended from the present 10 last points of departure airports to 71 of them. There was even speculation that, if the threat became more pronounced, bans could be extended to include domestic U.S. flights.

The only rational that could exist for a broadening of the laptop and electronic device bans is that either al Qaeda or ISIS have perfected some sort of technique that allows them to effectively bypass present airport explosive screening technologies directed at electronic devices, and that attack plans are being formulated to actively target passenger airliners. This, of course, would assume that one or both groups not only have the technical capacity to bypass our screening capabilities but also have the global reach to send their operatives to additional countries with last point of departure airports that are not presently covered in the initial ban from March 21, 2017.

More recently, on June 28, DHS announced moving away from specific laptop and electronics bans to more generalized ‘Enhanced Aviation Security Measures’ that would affect 105 countries, 280 last point of departure airports, and 180 airlines. These measures would encompass the following elements:

• Enhancing overall passenger screening;

• Conducting heightened screening of personal electronic devices;

• Increasing security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas; and

• Deploying advanced technology, expanding canine screening, and establishing additional preclearance locations.

It is unknown if this shift reflects a recent reduction in risk from the laptop and electronics bombing threat or if civil aviation corporate interests—which viewed the U.S. ban as negatively impacting their operations and consumer convenience—have simply won out.  

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