If you’re traveling on a direct flight to the United States from any one of 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries, you are now barred from bringing electronic devices larger than a cellphone or smartphone in your carry-on bag. British authorities have also announced a set of restrictions targeting a similar, but not identical, set of airports.
This means travelers on such flights to the United States and Britain must pack devices like laptops and tablets in their checked luggage, a move that raised the hackles of activists and journalists. Conspicuously, the United States’ edict did not affect any American carriers, who do not singly operate long-haul flights to the airports now placed under the ban. The British edict does affect a number of British carriers.
BuzzFeed’s Anup Kaphle listed the airports targeted by the American ban and noted the differences in the lists:
When pressed by reporters, officials in both countries said the measures were not a response to a specific threat, but rather the result of intelligence assessments that concluded groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are seeking new methods to sow terror in the skies, possibly through hidden bombs in electronic equipment.
“This is something they could have decided to do last month, or never,” said one U.S. official to NBC News. “There is no new critical piece of intelligence, but at the same time there are bad people trying to do bad things.”
There are quite a few reasons to be both perplexed and skeptical about the new rules. Security experts interviewed by a number of outlets were bemused by the decision. Some doubted that placing laptops in cargo holds would be any safer than carrying them aboard. Journalists and researchers also feared that the measures would risk compromising sensitive information and sources once their laptops are no longer in their immediate possession.
“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with the Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cellphone is a computer.”
Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at aviation consultancy firm StrategicAero Research in London, told Al Jazeera that the move seems to contradict the U.S. federal aviation authority’s own stated concerns over the presence of lithium batteries (which are found in laptops and other such devices) in a plane’s cargo hold. He also noted that the new edicts wouldn’t deter a terror attack launched from an airport in Paris or Brussels — European capitals where jihadist cells have already carried out deadly and spectacular attacks.
“It does nothing to prevent security [threats] from places like France that have suffered a lot of terrorism in recent years,” said Ahmad. “How would Homeland Security mitigate against a passenger from France with a device in the cabin in that situation?”
The answer, critics suggest, is that the electronics ban is not about security.
“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” wrote political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.”
Farrell and Newman suggested Tuesday’s order is an example of the Trump administration “weaponizing interdependence” — using its leverage in a world where American airports are key “nodes” in global air travel to weaken competitors. My colleague Max Bearak detailed how this could be a part of Trump’s wider protectionist agenda. In February, President Trump met with executives of U.S. airlines and pledged that he would help them compete against foreign carriers that receive subsidies from their home governments.
“A lot of that competition is subsidized by governments, big league,” said Trump at that meeting. “I’ve heard that complaint from different people in this room. Probably about one hour after I got elected, I was inundated with calls from your industry and many other industries, because it’s a very unfair situation.”
The expansion of big global carriers like Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines has turned airports in Dubai, Doha and Istanbul into international hubs. Millions of passengers from countries far removed from the Middle East — as far afield as Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe — travel to the United States through these cities every year. Dubai’s airport is projected to receive close to 89 million passengers in 2017 and retain its current status as the world’s busiest airport for international traffic.
Anybody flying to the United States from these points of departure knows there are already significant and often time-consuming additional security measures in place at these airports to screen U.S.-bound passengers. Now the Trump administration has created yet another reason to consider different routes.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time Trump has invoked national security to justify edicts that pursue other ideological ends. Advocacy groups attacked the ban as an extension of the White House’s controversial executive order halting immigration from six Muslim-majority nations. The hashtag #MuslimLaptopBan trended on Twitter.
“While there may be legitimate security reasons behind this decision, President Trump’s blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric and the total lack of explanation about these new restrictions raises serious concerns that this could be yet more bigotry disguised as policy,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International in a statement. “This could be the latest in what looks set to be a long line of discriminatory measures deployed by the Trump administration against Muslims around the world.”
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