Electronic device ban in flight cabins is futile

For Islamic terrorist groups, blowing up a passenger plane and causing hundreds of deaths is their peak achievement. Therefore, it makes sense for American and British security authorities to focus on preventative measures in civil aviation. On Tuesday, March 21, the US Homeland Security Department reported intelligence that terrorists were exploring “Innovative methods” for bringing down jets and stressed that bombs could be hidden in laptops.

Therefore, new American and British directives issued that day prohibited passengers from bringing electronic devices larger than cell phones aboard flights in their hand luggage, and ordering them to be deposited in checked luggage.

debkafile’s counterterrorism sources stress that this ban does not guarantee the plane’s safety from terrorist sabotage. A fire in the cabin can be quickly extinguished by the flight crew, but one in the belly of the plane, caused by a timer-activated bomb hidden inside a laptop computer, for example, would more likely cause the plane to crash.

Even worse, the instruction issued by the US Transportation Safety Administration only applied to flights from 12 Middle Eastern and North African countries, whereas a similar one issued in Britain only applied to flights from six countries. Among the countries excluded were Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Sudan and many others.

Electronic systems provide Western intelligence and security agencies with a large amount of data on attempts by terrorist organizations, especially ISIS and Al Qaeda, to carry out deadly attacks on civilian aviation. This data, however, is often far from specific or concrete.

Human intelligence is another important source. It is mostly obtained by special operations and elite forces deployed in the Middle East, including US commandos in Syria and Iraq and troops from Britain, Germany, France and Italy in those countries and elsewhere in the region, particularly Libya. This high-value data is drawn from sources at the core of the terrorist networks or on their fringes and is supplied in return for large sums of Western cash or other rewards. Some of the information covers tactical matters such as obstacles and traps, and some reveals how the organization is structured and its leaders’ strategies.

This stream of intelligence confirms that, due to their progressive loss of territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Islamic State and Al Qaeda leaders are switching their focus around to high-profile terrorist attacks. Spectacular acts of multiple violence hold out a strong lure for new recruits and are a source of pride for followers, diverting their attention from setbacks on the battlefield.

In this respect, the ultimate victory for Islamist terrorists is the downing of a civilian airliner resulting in hundreds of deaths. Special awareness of this threat is the first job of all national anti-terror agencies. However, prevention, if limited to just one end of a flight route, can’t guarantee that US and Western intelligence and security services will succeed in thwarting such terror threats, however large the volume of incoming electronic and other data on their desks.

Washington’s justifiable concern about the vulnerability of air traffic to terrorist attack demands two further measures: either halt all flights from countries whose internal security systems are deemed inadequate, or set up a security system to replace or augment the existing ones for US-bound flights.

But Washington is ruling out both these measures for two reasons:

1. The US policy of enlisting local armies to carry the war on terror on its behalf has failed.         

2. Replacing the security system at foreign airports would not only be prohibitively expensive, but require the permission of the local governments.

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