US lifting of restrictions on electronic devices on airlines shows improved security but militant intent to target aviation remains
The US announced on 19 July the end to its ban on passengers carrying portable electronic devices, including laptops, on inbound flights from several Middle Eastern and North African airports, which commenced on 20 March. The UK, which launched a similar ban on 21 March, announced on 28 July it had lifted its restrictions at three airports - two in Istanbul as well as one in Izmir. The UK’s ban continues to apply elsewhere in Turkey, as well as to major airports in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – which were all subject to the US restrictions – as well as on additional in-bound flights from Tunisia and Lebanon.
We assessed in our 22 March Special Report on the ban that both countries had likely imposed their restrictions in response to fresh intelligence concerning jihadist capabilities, specifically the development of new ways of concealing bombs in electronic devices. The ban may also have reflected increased concern about the ability of some airports to identify such bombs. The US’s decision to lift the ban likely reflects that, following inspections by US officials, the airports affected have now taken sufficient steps to increase security, specifically through more rigorous screening, to mitigate this particular potential threat.
No timeframe has been given for the UK to lift the remainder of its ban, but London has said it is reviewing the matter on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, following the lifting of the US restrictions, it is likely to follow suit over the coming few weeks. In any event, both countries will likely continue monitoring security levels at these airports to ensure continued compliance with enhanced security measures. If these are not maintained it is likely that similar restrictions may be re-introduced in future, even if safety has improved for now.
That said, there have been further significant aviation security incidents in recent weeks, including the disruption of a plot to smuggle an improvised explosive device onto an Etihad airways flight to Abu Dhabi at Sydney airport on 31 July. Two Lebanese Australians were subsequently charged, with police reports saying that they are relatives of Islamic State (IS) members in Syria, and were constructing a bomb under the group’s direction. It is credible that IS or its sympathisers would try to target an airline in retaliation for its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria; that IS would look to target a UAE airline is also particularly plausible, given Abu Dhabi’s long-standing support for Western efforts against Islamist militancy.
Separately, increased explosive screening requirements imposed by the EU on cargo flights from Bangladesh remain in effect, having been imposed on 1 June. These reflect fears that jihadists outside the Middle East could also seek to exploit weak security procedures to target aviation. It is therefore important to note that despite the lifting of the US restrictions, global jihadists’ intent to strike airports and airlines will persist over the longer term. As a result, further restrictions are likely to be periodically imposed in response to the evolving threat.