Disclaimer:  The following editorial is my personal opinion and does not represent the official position of the U.S. Government or military.

There has been a lot of blogger hate about the upcoming ban on anything larger than a phone for ten Middle East/ North African cities.  Frankly, people that use their laptops all the time are justly the most upset, however, this doesn’t represent the typical traveler.  At least my observations are that people use their devices 90% for entertainment, not work  (including me).  They can go back to using the seatback IFE and it won’t be the end of the world.  There is such a thing as sacrificing for the greater good.

The bottom line is that people with a lot more information than us have determined that this was a real threat and we need to do all we can to prevent a terrorist incident.  I have seen several bloggers state that the threat is “non-specific” and therefore we should not take these steps.  If the threat was specific, we would have the host country arrest the individual or introduce him or her to an up close and personal demonstration of American technology.  Terrorism is typically a non-specific threat which is the entire reason we have security checkpoint, body scanner, and x-ray machines, including for luggage.

We have seen successful airplane bombings recently with the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai and the attempted downing of the Somali airliner that could have succeeded if the bomber knew enough to get a seat next to a structural member instead of the aluminum skin.  In both instances, it was found that the bomber had help from the local ground staff or security.  So we hear that Al Qaeda is working on a manually-detonated electronics-based bomb.  Why would we poo-poo this report and not act?  You really want to wait until hundreds of people die in a bombing and then act?  This is like the neighborhood that complains about a dangerous crosswalk, but the city only takes action and installs a light after someone is killed.

Courtesy of the U.S. Army, I am an explosives expert.  Some bloggers have written that they don’t understand why an iPhone is OK since it is essentially a mini-computer.  Or how they could put three phones together and they would be as powerful as a laptop.  They must be thinking that somehow the computer inside is going to take over the plane in some sci-fi movie-like incident.  The terrorists are looking for volume to hide powerful explosives like C-4 or Semtex.  That is why the focus is on battery compartments.  In the past the security folks could simply ask you to power up a laptop to demonstrate the battery was in place.  This is conjecture, but what if Al Qaeda was found to be working on a way where part of the battery was left in place to power up the laptop for five minutes, but the rest of that space was an explosive?  A pound or two is plenty of power to cut a structural member if placed correctly. And back to the question on three iPhones together?  You can’t put a rubber band around three firecrackers and think it is the same as an M-80.  Just not how explosives and expanding gases work.

Others have said they don’t understand why a laptop in the hold is OK, but not in the cabin.  Well besides saying that the threat was a manually-detonated device, the terrorist would have no idea where their laptop would end up in the hold.  Explosive force diminishes by the square of the distance it is away from the area to be impacted.  Thus if a bomb is 1 foot away from the aircraft surface and exerts a certain explosive force, a bomb 2 feet away would have 1/4 of that force.  You cannot randomly hope for the location of a small explosive.  Remember we are only talking about a pound of explosive, not the whole suitcase-full that brought down Pan AM 103.

The wife and I are planning a future trip that will take us through one of these cities and I was debating if we should still take it,  but really I can do without my laptop for one trip.  I would much rather feel secure that we are trying to defeat a terrorist attempt.  The terrorist threat will be the likely cause of reduced air traffic on these carriers, not the fact that they can’t use their laptop.  Frankly, I would be much more concerned with my electronics being stolen or damaged in luggage than worry that I will only have IFE.

Just one man’s opinion, but I felt I needed to make a counter-argument that I did not see anyone else making except in main stream media.

Glenn

Posted by glenn | 18 Comments

18 responses to “Defending the Middle East Electronics Ban”

  1. Charlie says:

    Great post, Glenn! It is nice and refreshing to read something by someone with your experience knowledge. This ban has affected my planned itinerary for next month and because I cannot do without some things, I am just booking a different route. Still, I kind of would like to see how nice it would be to travel without the 8-10lbs of electronics I normally have on me! 🙂

  2. rjb says:

    The world is a dangerous place. The snowflakes have not accepted the reality that millions of people hate the USA. In fact, their leaders only want Death to America, Death to Israel and Death to the UK. In their own words:

  3. Ken says:

    Your argument is fresh compared to all others claiming the same so I like it. Could you explain to us how having the bomb in checked luggage? Is it because the bomber has to set things up?
    Second, you have any idea why the US government didn’t have a ban world wide? It seems to me banning only some countries Is not just effective because terrorists can travel everywhere. They can buy two separate tickets from the Middle East and carry the laptop in hand. What do you think?

    • glenn says:

      @ Ken – In the Somalia bombing they have pictures of a security person handing the explosives laden laptop to the terrorist in order to get around normal screening. I have no specific information, but I think they worry that in these named cities, something similar could happen. While their might also be lax security in say an African country, they are thinking that Al Qaeda would most likely have sympathizers in a predominately Muslim country. To your first question, my understanding of the intelligence was that it had to be a manually-triggered device. I expect that if an electronic device was on when screened through luggage, then it would be detected. This happened to me many years ago, when I was called to security because I accidentally had left my CD player on in a checked bag. My theory anyway.

      • ken says:

        How about my second question? If your logic applies then we should worry about airports in india because the security there is just worse than any airports in gcc countries like Dubai or Doha. In any case banning just a few countries seems more politically motivated as it won’t achieve what the government is claiming. Terrorists are not stupid. They could buy a ticket from middle east to india and get on board with air India or European airlines and come to the US with laptop on board under the current ban…

        • glenn says:

          @ Ken – Well, you are certainly right that terrorists are smart, the dumb ones are dead. They are concerned about an Islamic terrorist operation and thus focus on cities/ countries where they are active which would not include India. However, what you suggest is certainly possible, but would involve some additional scrutiny in India. Let’s hope your idea never comes to pass.

  4. Paul says:

    Thank you. Your post is clearly a welcome alternative to the negativity of certain bloggers thinking a few hours without their laptops or tablets is the end of the world.

    Would anyone rather lose a few hours of computer time (mostly for entertainment) or be a name on a casualty list of victims on the news.

  5. Diego says:

    I see your point Glenn. I’m on a trip an return this weekend and will have to check in electronics. Sucks, but life goes on… The part I disagree with is the intelligence bit. If it were intelligence, the UK ban would have mirrored the same airports. As Global entry, I’ve had to see an agent through Abu Dhabi. That’s not lax. It seems rather inconsistent.

    • glenn says:

      @Diego – Yeah, I know. Different agencies interpret intel different ways. I hear that Canada and France may follow and it will be interesting to see what they consider a threat.

  6. Van says:

    Appreciate the comments from someone that has experience in the area.

  7. Desi says:

    Glenn, thank you for this. It is nice to hear from someone with the background to actually provide insight instead of kneejerk whining based on laymen’s understanding.

  8. kq747 says:

    Thanks Glenn for sharing this. I am not a fan a of the ban in its entirety because there a clear ways to subvert it. That being said, I greatly appreciate getting the opinion of someone with your knowledge because it sheds light onto lingering questions which the rest of us can only speculate on for the most part. Honestly, if the government agencies would include this detail of information in explaining their decisions I feel like people would be more receptive and resist the urge to freak out as much. I’m not saying they need to reveal all their intelligence but at least offer more than what they have so far. When they do not offer much detail then people will fill in the gaps themselves. Thanks again!

  9. Christian says:

    Thanks for providing a different perspective. I do have to wonder why, if this really is about security, AUH is included when there’s a pre check system in place. Also, why does this not affect US airlines? If someone flies a US airline from a certain airport, isn’t the security check is done by the airport, not the airline?

  10. jediwho says:

    Refreshing post indeed and the most thoughtful piece I have read on this issue.

  11. Rupert says:

    Thanks for sharing your opinion and your insights into onboard vs hold and manual vs remote trigger – that’s very helpful information.
    I do believe that security should focus on the highest probability of risk and not apply the same policy to everything – so banning electronics from all flights would be an overreaction in my view.
    It’s hard to believe though that the ban the way it was implemented ONLY reflects security concerns:
    1. The US Included AUH despite having pre-clearance. When they installed pre-clearance, the US basically acknowledged that security is on par to US. The UK didn’t include AUH despite looking at the same intelligence. That smacks of being a political swipe at the ME3, conveniently giving an advantage to US carriers.
    2. As the intelligence is from the last few years, it seems to be a re-evaluation of the safety by the current US administration and has a political element to it, rather than new intelligence that requires urgent action!
    3. The US has a history of “security theatre” – billions have been spent on the TSA, yet the likelihood of them finding weapons at security checkpoints has not improved – they continue to fail 90+% of tests!
    It will be interesting to see if Germany and France will follow – both are more at risk than the US and I’d consider them less likely to engage in “security theater” to make people feel safer without accomplishing anything…

    • glenn says:

      @ Rupert – Everything that I have heard says this is new intel and that seems to check with not only the U.S. and UK in this ban, but likely other Western countries joining soon. They wouldn’t all look at old intel at the same time. As to the inclusion of the UAE by the U.S., I just think too many people love conspiracy theories and do know that different countries’ agencies make their own judgments on exactly the same intel. Let’s see if Canada and France take the U.S. or UK view … or even something completely different.

  12. Cipta says:

    I’m curious. If you say terrorist can modify a laptop to use (part of) its battery compartment as a place of C4 or semtex, what happened to cellular phone with casing that incorporate extra batteries as well? Or a phone with custom battery? Mophie and Anker are examples. Theor battery size is much bigger than, say Lenovo X-1 carbon?

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