The U.S. just lifted its ban on electronic devices on flights from ten Middle East airports. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly revealed on Wednesday that the ban had been instituted after the DHS tested a small explosive device inside a pressurized plane, but that new security measures were adequate to handle the threat. Although the U.S. is confident, the U.K’s ban remains in place, and a new paper from security thinktank Trends sheds light on how laptops can be a potential danger.
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The biggest issue, detailed in the study, is that ISIS is particularly tech-savvy and has shown an unusual willingness to turn consumer tech into weapons, like grenade-dropping drones and tele-operated machine guns. Specifically dangerous in air travel, ISIS also constantly develops new types of bombs to slip through protective measures. One example is TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide), known as “the mother of Satan” because it is so prone to detonation. Although this is being solved with new technology, terrorists will keep probing for the next one. Of course, it’s tough to know exactly what security teams can’t detect. But after ISIS took Mosul airport in June 2014, they could’ve used its X-ray machines to test just how undetectable their various weapons are.
“We tested it, on a real airplane, on the ground, pressurized. To say the least, it destroyed the airplane.”
In the world of gadgets, laptops bombs are a particularly nefarious possibility. Because they only have to look like a computer when turned on briefly, functionality and battery life can be drastically cut, leaving plenty of room for deadlier features.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum this week, Secretary Kelly said he first thought the laptop threat wasn’t that big of a deal before understanding its real potential.
Having been around explosives all my life, the device as described to me had an amount of explosive on it that I just did not believe could destroy an airplane in flight. So, we tested it, on a real airplane, on the ground, pressurized. To say the least, it destroyed the airplane.
But Robert Bunker, author of the latest paper detailing the deadly threat of a laptop explosive, was not so surprised.
“From an aviation security perspective this is not new information,” Bunker told Popular Mechanics. “What we have is a distinguished Marine Corps general with no institutional knowledge of these tests who has recently been educated on this threat.”
Bunker mentions an incident in February last year when an Al Shabab terrorist detonated a laptop bomb on a flight from Mogadishu. The explosion blew a hole in the side of the plane, killing only the bomber. If the plane had been at cruising altitude, there could have been many more casualties, and the plane itself might have been lost.
The other reason why carry-on laptops specifically can be a danger is that a small bomb can only do severe damage when it’s close enough to the planes exterior to blow an actual hole in it. If it’s buried among suitcases, the blast will be muffled and the damage minimized. Bunker adds that it’s just easier to push a button than detonate something remotely.
“Typically terrorist detonators are improvised, so they don’t work 100 percent of the time,” says Bunker. “If a malfunction occurs on a detonator in the hold, you don’t get a second chance.”
The DHS says it had intelligence that there was a plan to use such a laptop bomb, but now the ban has been lifted. So what changed? It’s unlikely the modification was anything technological.
“It appears rather a more stringent and layered screening defense is being implemented at the last point of departure airports into the U.S.,” says Bunker, mentioning that the DHS couldn’t have deployed new technology so quickly. “This would likely be combined with a more systematic focus during screening on likely spaces and volumes in which explosives can be hidden in larger-than-smartphone devices.”
Even in small packages, bombs can be deadly at high altitudes, but for now, laptops are once again clear for travel.