Threat of Explosives in Electronic Devices Behind U.S. Flight Ban, Official Says

Terrorists are increasingly trying to find ways to hide explosives in electronic devices, U.S. official tells Buzzfeed, adding that no specific, imminent threat was known.

Laptops, and other large electronic devices, are now banned on flights of nine airlines from the Middle East and North Africa to the U.S.
Chris Ison/AP

The United States and Britain on Tuesday imposed restrictions on carry-on electronic devices on planes coming from certain airports in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa in response to unspecified security threats.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said passengers traveling from a specific list of airports could not bring into the main cabin devices that are larger than a mobile phone such as tablets, portable DVD players, laptops, printers and scanners, e-readers, gaming devices and cameras.

Instead, such items must be in checked baggage.

The moves were prompted by reports that militant groups want to smuggle explosive devices inside electronic gadgets, U.S. officials told reporters on Monday. The new regulations were not based on a specific, imminent threat, but were based on a consensus that terrorist organizations have been trying to find ways to hide explosives in devices such as laptops, a U.S. official told Buzzfeed.

"The U.S. government is concerned about terrorists’ ongoing interest in targeting commercial aviation, including transportation hubs over the past two years," a U.S. counter-terrorism official said in a statement, adding that efforts were "intensifying."

Although U.S. civil liberties groups raised concerns that U.S. President Donald Trump was seeking another limit on movement after a travel ban from Muslim majority countries was challenged in the courts, Britain took similar steps. U.S. officials said the decision had nothing to do with Trump's efforts to impose a travel ban on citizens of six majority-Muslim nations.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that there would be curbs on electronic items in the main cabin on flights from six countries in the Middle East. The foreign office said the measures would be implemented by March 25.

French and Canadian officials said they were examining their arrangements but neither government was taking additional security measures at this stage.

The airports covered by the U.S. restrictions are in Cairo; Istanbul; Kuwait City; Doha, Qatar; Casablanca, Morocco; Amman, Jordan; Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates.

The airports affected by the U.S. electronics rules are served by nine airlines that fly directly from those cities to the United States about 50 times a day, senior government officials said.

The affected carriers -- Royal Jordanian Airlines, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways -- have until Friday to adopt the new policy, which took effect early on Tuesday.

No U.S. airlines are on the list because there are no direct flights on them between the United States and the cited airports, officials said.

Britain said its restrictions would apply to direct flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

The British regulations affect British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Atlas-Global, Pegasus, EgyptAir, Royal Jordanian, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, Turkish Airlines and Tunisair.

IAG-owned British Airways advised customers departing from affected airports to arrive in good time at check-in.

Shares in IAG turned lower after the announcement by the UK government, with easyJet also ending the day in negative territory.

A U.S. government source said that while the restrictions arose from multiple reports of security threats, some very recent intelligence had arrived which helped to trigger the timing of the current alert.

Reuters reported on Monday that the move had been under consideration since the U.S. government learned of a threat several weeks ago.

U.S. authorities believe there is a threat from plots similar to an incident a year ago in Somalia, where a bomb hidden in a laptop blew a hole in the side of a plane although failed to down it, another source said.

Angela Gittens, director general of airport association ACI World, likened the move to restrictions on liquids aboard planes, which she said also came suddenly in response to a perceived threat and had caused some disruption.

"The first few days of something like this are quite problematic, but just as with the liquids ban, it will start to sort itself out," she said.