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Analysts question effectiveness of US and UK electronics bans
France and Canada were considering Wednesday whether to follow the United States and Britain in banning electronic devices from cabin baggage on some flights from the Middle East and North Africa. If security experts agree that explosives could indeed be concealed in tablets and laptops, they also raise questions about the effectiveness of the measures.
Officials in the US and the UK have so far not greatly expanded upon what exactly prompted the previous days’ bans of electronic devices from cabin baggage on selected flights beyond what White House press secretary Sean Spicer already said the previous day.
“Terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressive in pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer objects,” Spicer said in a briefing, citing a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican and Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee elaborated only slightly on “new aviation threats” based on “fairly recent” intelligence reports, and US media cited various unnamed sources, some saying threats are posed by the Islamic State armed group, others saying they come from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The vagueness left security analysts speculating on a threat that appeared credible and a set of restrictions that cast serious doubt on whether such threats were being effectively countered.
“I absolutely understand and appreciate that there will be some reliable intelligence that points to a credible threat that an improvised explosive device can be concealed within a consumer electronic device such as an iPad or a tablet or a laptop, and we’ve seen good evidence to support that type of intelligence in the last six or seven years,” says Matthew Finn, a security consultant for the aviation industry.
“What I’m still not clear about is what security value we derive from this measure, because if people can still take their devices on the aircraft in the hold instead of the cabin, the device is still actually on the aircraft”, he says. “I’m also concerned with the targeting of the measure. If someone wanted to get a device on a plane bound for the US, all they have to do is travel to another place where those restrictions aren’t in place.”
Other observers remarked upon the seemingly hasty implementation of the restrictions.
“I’m assuming we’ll see more in the next 24 to 48 hours about this ban and why it was necessary,” says Scott Lucas, professor of international relations at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “Right now I can’t tell if it was a carefully thought out reaction to a credible threat, or whether it just seemed to be a quick and ill implemented response to a bit of intelligence that was out there.”
If Britain followed the US in imposing a similar ban, the two countries also chose a different set of targeted countries, airports and airlines, a sign at very least they are interpreting shared intelligence in different ways.
“The fact that the UK has quickly followed the US perhaps gives us more confidence that the intelligence is recent, it’s credible and a threat has been risk assessed and therefore these measures are necessary,” Finn says.
Britain and the US also share intelligence with Canada, which along with France was considering Wednesday whether to impose restrictions of its own, as well as Australia and New Zealand, who along with Germany declined to impose a ban.
The bans came as representatives of the 68 nations taking part in a US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria gathered in Washington for their first meeting since 2014, but Lucas cautioned against drawing a link between the US’s ban and its commitment to fighting the jihadists.
“Moves against the Islamic State are already underway in Iraq, in the push to retake the city of Mosul,” he says, adding the attention to the IS was a “diversion” when it came to the conflict in Syria.
“The real battle in Syria continues to be a very complex battle, which mainly involves the Assad regime, opposition and rebel groups, but also now includes Kurdish groups as well as others who are outside the country who have interests,” Lucas says.
“In the Obama administration, there was real indecision and uncertainty about how to deal with Syria, to the point where it became convenient to say it was about pushing back the Islamic State. And I think this diversion-sideshow continues with this conference.”