US and UK bar carry-on electronics in flights from major mid-east airports

Not everyone is buying the national security rationale used to justify the new rules.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar
CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

The United Kingdom and the United States are restricting travelers from major airports in the Middle East and North Africa from bringing electronic devices larger than a cell phone in their carry-on items.

The UK restrictions apply to travelers from six countries, and the U.S. restrictions apply to travelers from ten countries. Any item larger than a cell phone or smart phone — like laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, and portable DVD players — must be in the travelers’ checked luggage.

New guidance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Tuesday said that the ban is in place for national security reasons.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items,” reads a fact sheet on the new restrictions. A spokesman for the UK Prime Minister’s office told the Washington Post that the UK’s restrictions were based on the “same intelligence the U.S. relies on.”

The countries targeted are all in the Middle East and North Africa. Airports targeted by the United States include:

  • Queen Alia International Airport (AMM)
  • Cairo International Airport (CAI)
  • Ataturk International Airport (IST)
  • King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED)
  • King Khalid International Airport (RUH)
  • Kuwait International Airport (KWI)
  • Mohammed V Airport (CMN)
  • Hamad International Airport (DOH)
  • Dubai International Airport (DXB)
  • Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH)

All of the countries targeted are U.S. allies. Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States, Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Egypt receives the second biggest U.S. military aid package of any country, and Qatar is home to a forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command.

The United Kingdom is more specific in its restrictions, and will not allow phones, laptops, or tablets larger than 16.0cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm in carry-ons for travelers from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

Many of these airports are major international hubs for travelers wishing to travel to the Middle East, Asia, or Africa. More than 78 million people traveled through Dubai International Airport in 2015 alone, and 61 million people traveled through Ataturk International Airport that year.

There has been some confusion over the restrictions. According to the latest DHS guidance, airlines were notified of the changes on Tuesday at 8 a.m. EST, and they will have 96 hours to comply. The restrictions are in place indefinitely, until further notice.

William Wechser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on counterterrorism, told ThinkProgress there could be a legitimate reason for these restrictions.

“The reason you’re interested in electronics is because you have a sizeable thing, which means you can pack it with various types of explosives, and you have electric current running through it, which means that you can set off the explosives pretty easily,” he said. “The real danger here would be if these guys had figured out how to structure a laptop with explosives such that it looked on a simple X-ray machine like a standard laptop. Because most of the time, unless it’s enhanced security, you don’t have to turn on your laptop.”

But others have expressed skepticism. The Turkish Transportation Minister said on Tuesday that the United States “should not confuse Istanbul Airport with some of other airports.”

“While there may be legitimate security reasons behind this decision, President Trump’s blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric and the total lack of explanation about these new restrictions raises serious concerns that this could be yet more bigotry disguised as policy,” Naureen Shah, Senior Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “This administration has consistently used ‘national security’ as shorthand for discriminating against Muslims, and we fear this latest decision may be no different. Muslims are once again left in the dark as the U.S administration piles up bans and restrictions against them.”

A Washington Post analysis posited that the restrictions may even be an effort to attack Emirates airline, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, whose hub airports have all been targeted and which have all been accused of being subsidized by their governments. Targeting these airports could mean travelers choose to go through other airports, and thus use other airlines to avoid the inconvenience.

The electronics restrictions do not impact travelers traveling domestically and only apply to inbound flights for both countries.

The new restrictions come just one week after two U.S. federal judges temporarily blocked Trump’s Muslim ban, which affects nationals from six-Muslim majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). The Trump administration has argued that the travel ban is similarly for national security reasons — an argument that experts have refuted.