On the 21st of March, the Department of Homeland Security quietly released a travel notification update: On flights from a handful of few foreign airports, no laptops or large electronic devices would be permitted. For those of you worried about upcoming business travel, no domestic flights will be impacted, but the order can be changed without notice for foreign travel.
It took almost two weeks for major media outlets to pick up on this and dig deeper; CNN was the first, but many others followed their lead. And the story that’s emerging is that the recent alert is largely because of one man: Ibrahim al-Asiri.
An innovator in the concealment of high explosives within electronic devices, al-Asiri has been on the U.S. Terrorist List since 2011, and several of his designs have been intercepted and occasionally detonated. He’s suspected of being one of al-Qaeda’s top experts on explosives in the Arabian peninsula, and is known for his use of PETN in his devices — a somewhat unstable high explosive that can be manufactured from common industrial chemicals. (Don’t do this at home, kids.)
The recent ban has been brought about rather suddenly, due to recently acquired intelligence. The nature of that intelligence, however, is a bit of a mystery, and it’s worthy of a bit of examination. And, in order to understand it, it’s important to know a bit of the background.
PETN is suitable for terrorist purposes for two main reasons: First, it’s fairly easy to manufacture; and, second, it doesn’t give off a lot of fumes due to low vapor pressure, which makes it harder to detect. The downside for them is, it’s one of the more unstable plastic explosives, which makes premature detonation fairly likely.
As early as 2012, American intelligence knew of al-Qaeda designs for a gel version of PETN that was to be used in devices surgically implanted in humans; the absence of metal parts made them almost impossible to detect, while the explosive’s high brisance meant that it would be moderately effective even thus cushioned. Similar forms were used by the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and concealed inside printer ink cartridges for the 2010 “Cargo Planes” bomb plot. And, remarkably, al-Asiri apparently helped his own brother conceal a one-pound PETN device up his rectum before the latter’s self-detonation in the so-called “BIOYA Attack“. (It was messy, but the targeted official survived with only minor injuries. I seriously couldn’t make this shit up.)
Given that we’ve known all this for a fair amount of time, we’re forced to wonder why this ban would take place right now, and for these airports in particular. The United Kingdom issued a nearly identical ban at the same time, so we can presume the source of intelligence was a shared one. (EDIT: Confirmed by some news services.) Likewise, similar actions were taken, albeit less openly, after the cargo plane devices were detected in the 2010 incident.
Intelligent speculation would conclude that perhaps one or more devices were detected and intercepted at some point, especially as CNN’s report specifically mentioned that the danger was from explosives concealed within bogus laptop disc drives. Alternately, it’s possible that plans or prototypes for such devices were recovered, possibly as a result of the January SEAL raid in Yemen (where some similar intel has been confirmed to have been gained). That only a few airlines in particular are impacted by this — UK reports specifically mention Royal Jordanian — could indicate a personnel vector. Or, of course, it could be due to recent human intelligence or some combination; for obvious reasons, this sort of thing is kept secret.
What is certain, though, is that terrorist innovation is nearly keeping pace with detection measures, which makes airport security measures a matter of continued importance. But we already knew that; it wasn’t even up for debate. Something that would be debated, however, would be the conclusion that we should increase our activity in Yemen, where al-Asiri is based and chaotic violence is widespread. This may also give further ammunition to proponents of President Trump’s travel bans, which are facing continued obstruction in the courts despite a moderate amount of justification.
And there’s one more thing I might point out: that even highly inconvenient orders like this one are unlikely to face civil or judicial obstructions if they come from the appropriate agencies rather than by executive fiat — a lesson President Trump would do well to take to heart.