Exclusive: Laptop Ban Reaction to X-Ray Equipment Stolen by ISIS

Carry-On X-Ray
Carry-On X-Ray Equipment.  Courtesy: Narita Airport

On March 21st, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered airlines flying to the U.S. out of 10 airports, mostly in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, to refuse to transport any electronic devices of iPad size or greater in their passenger compartments.  This effective ban on in-flight laptop usage on these flights, all of which would be between 6 and 12 hours in duration, assuredly caused any airline who uses those airports as a hub to face massive losses as travelers rush to connect through Europe instead.  For the last several weeks, DHS has allegedly been considering expanding the ban to all airports in Europe as well, a move which European officials seem to have talked our government down from.

What has been missing from the story is, “Why?”  Authorities have only disclosed a generalized fear that laptops could be used to conceal explosives, and have expressly denied a specific threat.  But laptops have been around for decades, and as surely any sophisticated terrorist has heard of timers, why does it matter if you ban them from the passenger cabin if you allow them in the cargo hold?

A commercial aviation security official that I have verified but will not publicly name has explained the rationale to me: x-ray equipment of the variety commonly used for screening carry-on baggage disappeared a few months ago from a location in the Middle East, and it is suspected (perhaps even recently confirmed, given the desire to expand the ban) that ISIS members have stolen the equipment such that they can study how to properly conceal an explosive.  Given that a bomb smuggled in a laptop exploded at an airport security checkpoint in Somalia on March 6th, 2017, it appears DHS has concluded that the theft was related and laptops were the concealment method of choice.

X-rayed Laptop
An x-rayed laptop. The battery is in the lower right.

It’s not bad reasoning since lithium batteries are completely opaque to x-rays, and therefore a battery-sized metal box filled with explosives would look exactly the same [Edit – This is not true for the newest technology x-rays… read more…].  But, there’s three problems with the reaction that make the laptop ban the wrong idea:

  1. Once the laptop ban was put in place, anyone who planned to use a laptop to conceal a bomb was tipped off and will simply try another approach.  This is reminiscent of the failed “toner cartridge bomb,” after which the U.S banned toner cartridges from flights.  But obviously, a toner cartridge is only what they chose that day… a stereo, Xbox, or, well, laptop, would have worked just as well.  Likewise, just because they’re doing it in carry-ons now does not mean they won’t switch to checked baggage next.
  2. A laptop battery actually holds similar energy to a small bomb.  While it’s not easy to make a laptop battery release that energy all at once in an explosion, a fire in the cargo hold created by batteries malfunctioning (not Galaxy S7!) resulted in at least 2 deaths by plane crash so far (all-cargo, not passenger, flight, thankfully).  By forcing all these batteries into the cargo hold where a fire cannot be rapidly detected and contained, DHS would be countering any deceased risk of terror with an increased risk of fire.
  3. It is simply not economically viable.  Taking away what would surely amount to millions of man-hours of productivity every year is simply not the solution (exactly $1.1B of loss, industry group IATA estimates, quite conservatively in my opinion).  It would be far less economically impactful to swab every laptop that comes through the checkpoint for explosive trace residue.

So why was the stolen x-ray equipment kept a secret?  I asked my source if there was some security reason for keeping the stolen x-ray equipment from the public, and was told, unequivocally, no.  “It’s because the mom from the midwest planning to fly her kids to Disney would freak out.  They are worried that people would stop flying if they knew.”

My thought would be that the public would be much more understanding if the government was more forthcoming.  But apparently the U.S. government feels that you can’t handle the truth and therefore hides behind secrecy laws to withhold the full story.  This hiding is, of course, illegal, since, with exceptions not relevant, to withhold information as “sensitive security information” (SSI) requires that the release of the information would be “detrimental to the security of transportation,” not detrimental to mom’s willingness to go on vacation (49 C.F.R. § 1520.5(a)(3)).  The TSA, a sub-component of DHS, is well-known for using the · SSI designation in an · “inconsistent and arbitrary” nature, as well as merely to avoid embarrassment, so it is not particularly surprising when the parent agency does so as well.  [I have reached out to the DHS press office, which has declined to comment on this story.]

(Note that my source did not specify whether this information was SSI, classified, or otherwise protected, but I assume it is presently SSI and not classified given my source’s role and reports that U.S. authorities have discussed the situation with airline officials, which would not be done for classified information.)

Putting together one more piece of the puzzle, it seems to me that the classified information leaked by President Trump to the Russians earlier this month was very likely the details (beyond that which are reported here and beyond my knowledge) about the how the government was able to infiltrate ISIS to investigate the use of the stolen x-ray machines.  Most news organizations did not report the nature of Trump’s disclosure other than that it related to “a plot by Islamic State,” although the Washington Post actually did describe it as laptop-ban related.   So at the same time as the American people are mislead about the risks of flying, the Russians were given more information than the airlines and airport operators who are responsible for actually keeping bombs off of planes.

So, to recap: the government lied to us when they said there wasn’t a specific threat, they withheld information from us because they thought we’d be scared, and they implemented a laptop ban that will be ineffective and expensive at best, dangerous (as a result of increased fire risk) at worst.  Business as usual.

“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in ‘How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.’  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web: https://professional-troublemaker.com/

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10 thoughts on “Exclusive: Laptop Ban Reaction to X-Ray Equipment Stolen by ISIS

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  1. Some time ago I landed my light plane at a local commercial airport. In order to leave the airport area where I was parked I had to walk by several large commercial jets and pass through the airport terminal. But, at the door, I was told I could not pass through because the terminal was a “secure area”. But, apparently the planes were not. So I walked by the parked commercial jets and exited the airport at a gate much further away. Gee, I have always wondered why someone would not just land a plane and walk over and place a bomb on a commercial jet? But I guess terrorists flight school only details how to smash a plane into a building and not how to actually land a private plane on a public airport?

  2. Journalist Arrested By UK Border Police For Reading A Book About ISIS:

    A journalist has claimed he was “briefly detained” by counter terrorism officers at Manchester Airport for reading a book about Isis.

    Diogo Bercito said he was pulled to one side after another passenger anonymously complained.

    He was reading The Isis Apocalypse, by former adviser to the US State Department on terrorism issues Will McCants. It explores the ideology of the terrorist organization and is often used as a reference for journalists and researchers.

    He asked in his article: “Could they? Based on what? Reading a book? ”

  3. The idea behind laptops going in the cargo hold instead of the cabin didn’t make sense to me either, but I think this reason makes sense. The explosive capacity of the laptop due to the size constraints is going to be limited. To bring down a plane the laptop would have to be positioned as close as possible to the skin of the aircraft; likely the terrorist holding it against a window as it detonates. By placing laptops in the hold, where it’s position relative to other baggage is uncertain, and being shielded by other cargo, it’s possible that it’s explosive power could be insufficient to destroy the plane. It’s basically the best option in a worse case scenario.

    1. I’m with you that positioning matters. I’m not so sure it’s so easy to say that holding a bomb against a window will necessarily produce a more destructive explosion than in the cargo hold (obviously the position there would be more randomized, but it could end up on the floor with a bunch of luggage on top thus *amplifying* the explosion, not to mention start an uncontrolled fire).

      I think what DHS is really worried about is not positioning, but in-airport assembly. That is, a bit of explosives the size of a laptop battery is bad, but a bit of explosives from 4 conspirators smuggled into the airport separately and joined together would be much more of a problem.

      Then again, if we’re really worried about “terror,” wouldn’t *any* explosion do? I would imagine that the impact of a laptop bomb exploding on a domestic AA flight, even if it does not bring down the plane, would wreak substantial havoc.

  4. Lol they think people will stop flying they already stopped flying and started driving the moment TSA started groping children and irradiating adults. The USA hates the TSA system and it’s lawlessness.

  5. Thank you for your in depth article – I’ve wondered what the fuss was about.
    So there was no plot … only missing equipment? I wondered at the time that this came out if this was as much about pushing the airports involved towards better screening as it was any actual problem. I know that there are numerous airports overseas where security is various levels of lackadaisical (and other facilities too – I was once in a Beijing train station with metal detectors and x-ray machines where no people and no luggage were actually screened in any way!).
    Technically, SSI, FOUO (For official use only, a DOD favorite), and LES (law enforcement sensitive), all 3 of which I have encountered before, are ‘protective markings’, not security classifications, but that doesn’t stop them from being enforced as if they were levels of classification.

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