By School of Public Affairs
In a post-9/11 world, travelers typically comply with changing security measures without question or hesitation. The reasoning behind these security choices lies deep within policy practices implemented by Homeland Security. The recently ended U.S. laptop ban is an example of how the public experiences policy in action without necessarily having all of the answers.
The laptop ban on international flights with final destination in the U.S.
Beginning in March of 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required enhanced security at several foreign airports for flights into the United States. The new regulations prohibited electronic devices larger than cell phones in the aircraft cabin, restricting laptops, tablets, game units, and other large electronic devices to checked baggage. Because this measure impacted ability to travel with laptops, it has been referred to as a “laptop ban.”
When first enacted, the ban affected flights from nine specific airlines to the U.S. from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Tricia Bacon, PhD, Assistant Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, researches U.S. counterterrorism policy as well as terrorist and insurgent groups’ alliance behavior. She clarifies that while this ban may appear random, it actually represents a calculated move based on current intelligence about terrorists and potential plots.
“A lot of this comes from threats from the Islamic State,” Bacon says. “There was clearly concern specifically about airlines traveling from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States.”
The ban was a hassle for travelers. In addition to concerns about the risk of damage to checked laptops, this ban created a significant productivity loss for business travelers intending to work during a flight that easily could take more than ten hours. These negative repercussions were likely anticipated by policy makers within Homeland Security. According to Bacon, “The duration of the ban suggests that there was a counter calculation; that policymakers also had to consider the effect the ban had on the airline industry and for businesses in the U.S.”
The ban was lifted on flights to the U.S. in July 2017, despite being originally announced to run through October. “The ban would not have been lifted if Homeland Security didn’t think there were security measures in place to counteract the risk,” Bacon clarifies.
Why was the laptop ban implemented?
Intelligence and counter-terrorism experts assess threats, evaluate the impact of policy decisions, and implement policies to counteract terrorism. While it is not clear what information Homeland Security had before implementing the laptop ban, intelligence and security experts know that terrorist organizations have been perfecting their ability to place sophisticated bombs in laptops.
In February 2016, a passenger on a Somali jet detonated a device approximately 15 minutes after takeoff, blowing a hole in the side of the aircraft. Because the flight had not reached cruising altitude, the explosion fell short of destroying the plane. Instead, only one fatality resulted as the suspect was ejected from the plane in the blast. Investigators are confident that a bomb was hidden in a laptop.
Initial reports following the explosion suggested that the bomb had been undetected by x-ray machines, but surveillance footage points to insider involvement. Security tapes appear to show a laptop being handed off to the passenger in question after he had cleared security. Regardless of how the bomb was brought onto the plane, this incident highlighted the need for heightened security measures, especially at airports where the Islamic state has access.
Adjusting to terrorist threats
The laptop ban was just the latest move in the complex interactions between governments and terrorist organizations. In December 2001, Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber, attempted to detonate a device in his footwear during an American Airlines flight. Security measures were then introduced requiring travelers to remove their shoes for x-ray screening.
British police uncovered a terrorist plot in 2006 to create bombs in flight by combining liquids they had brought on board. Security agencies acted quickly, banning all liquids in passenger carry-on baggage, with the exception of baby formula or prescriptions. The ban was relaxed within two months, although restrictions remain in place more than a decade later.
Policies like these have been largely accepted as part of airline travel in the United States. Bacon explains that such blanket security measures aren’t simply reactions, but also carefully crafted responses. “When there is a non-specific threat, raising security is often intended to deter or delay the terrorists in their plot,” she says.
Was the laptop ban successful?
Measuring the success of the ban is more complicated than estimating how many plots were foiled. Bacon explains that the goal of security measures like the laptop ban isn’t always to prevent identical attacks, but rather to send a message. “Sometimes governments take this kind of action to alert terrorists that they know something, thereby causing the terrorists to delay plots or change their tactics, which costs them time and resources, and can raise terrorist groups’ concern about infiltration. It helps keep them off balance.” she describes. Counterterrorism is thus an ongoing process, requiring intelligence and policy experts to anticipate risks and respond appropriately.
Are you interested in developing policy-based solutions to combat terrorism and protect homeland security? The Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy, offered through American University’s School of Public Affairs, prepares students for a career in intelligence or homeland security. Visit http://www.american.edu/learnmorespagrad/MS-in-Terrorism-and-Homeland-Security-Policy.cfm to learn more.