How the Rise of Electronics Has Made Smuggling Bombs Easier

A passenger takes out a laptop with a sticker on it while entering a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 in Atlanta.

A passenger takes out a laptop with a sticker on it while entering a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 in Atlanta. David Goldman/AP File Photo

New restrictions on flights from the Middle East reflect how just about anything with power can be turned into an explosive.

Last February, a Somali man boarded a Daallo Airlines flight in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. Twenty minutes after the flight took off, the unassuming laptop in his carry-on bag detonated, blowing a hole in the side of the plane. The bomber was killed, and two others were injured. But if the aircraft had reached cruising altitude, an expert told CNN, the bomb would have ignited the plane’s fuel tank and caused a second, potentially catastrophic blast.

The Daallo explosion was one of a handful of terrorist attacks that the Department of Homeland Security cited to help explain why it introduced new rules for some passengers flying to the U.S. with electronics. Starting this week, travelers on U.S.-bound flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa will be required to check all electronic items larger than a smartphone.

A senior administration official told reporters Monday night that the indefinite electronics ban was a response to continuing threats against civil aviation, but wouldn’t elaborate on the specific nature or the timing of the threat. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the ban was “necessary and proportional to the threat,” and that terrorists continue to come up with “creative ways to try and outsmart detection methods.”

The specificity of the new rules could hint at the nature of the intelligence it’s based on, says Justin Kelley, the vice president for operations at MSA Security, a large private firm that offers explosive-screening services. The ban could be focused on simply separating items like laptop-bombs from passengers who would need to access them in order to set them off, Kelley says. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for concision and clarity, follows.

Kaveh Waddell: How much has bomb-smuggling technology changed since Richard Reid tried to hide explosives in a shoe in 2001?

Justin Kelley: It’s pretty common, and it was common even before Reid. But now, everything we have on our person has some sort of power source to it, and that’s what they’re looking for. Everything from a laptop to a phone to an iPad—most of those restricted items they want now in checked baggage—they all have a power source, which is what bombers are generally looking for: something to kick off their device.

Waddell: What’s most difficult about designing a bomb that’s hard to detect, and small enough to fit into something like a shoe or underwear?

Kelley: The bombs in underwear were pretty rudimentary—they needed a human element. But if we’re looking at an electronic device, they can be done a whole host of different ways. They don’t necessarily need an actor to set off the device.

The electronic version has been around since we’ve had cellphones. Even before cellphones, you could use a greeting card that sings a holiday tune or a birthday wish—those use power as well. There’s a whole host of things that can be used to initiate a device. But now, we travel with all these electronics on our person, we need to look even harder.

Waddell: DHS said the new ban was created in response to a threat. How do authorities monitor the state of adversaries’ bomb-making skills to have a sense of what to watch for in airports?

Kelley: That intelligence could have been gathered through social media, or people they’re monitoring. Terrorist groups are always changing and adapting to what we put forth as security principles, so this is just another step. When liquids were banned from planes, that was also a product of intelligence, and I’m not surprised they don’t want to disclose the source.

Waddell: What kind of extra screening might luggage be subject to in checked bags that they might not be if they were carried on?

Kelley: Anything on those planes is going to be screened, whether it’s passenger-carried or cargo. This may have been driven by intelligence that someone would use power sources during a flight, that there would need to be some human interaction.

If they were interested in banning electronics entirely, there would be a stronger restriction.

Waddell: So you’re saying that it’s not necessarily that it’s easier to detect a bomb in checked baggage—it could be that separating a person from their electronics breaks a necessary link for using it as a bomb?

Kelley: Yeah, it tells me they want to separate the human element from the device. That’s what jumped out at me. That could be part of the reason.

Waddell: Would it be that difficult to check a laptop that would be set to detonate at a certain time or altitude?

Kelley: No, in fact, we have seen that in the past. That’s why I think this specific ban was driven by specific intelligence that they’ve gathered. The Reid-type device was human driven. If their concern was about a device in the belly of the plane, I think they’d have imposed other restrictions, but this just says, “You can fly with it; you just can’t fly with it on your person.”

Waddell: The scope of the ban is pretty limited right now: It only covers direct flights to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Could this be broadened at some point? Might this be a pilot program that’ll end up being implemented elsewhere?

Kelley: I think that comes down to how comfortable DHS is with security at these host countries. Our hope is that other countries that other countries follow TSA-like guidelines for screening—but some don’t. Those that are at or near our standard wouldn’t be part of the ban.

Waddell: Earlier today, the U.K. introduced a similar ban. If enough other countries jump on board, could this become standard practice?

Kelley: No doubt. And once someone steps up with a concern, with real-time information sharing, I think you might see quite a few more countries jump on as well.