The next time you take a direct flight from the Middle East to the United States, you’re probably going to need to part with your laptop: The Trump administration has barred passengers on U.S.-bound flights from ten airports in eight Muslim-majority nations — Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — from carrying (non-medically necessary) electronic devices larger than a smartphone into the cabin of their planes.
The new restriction is not a response to a specific, imminent threat of attack, according to the administration. Rather, the rule was (officially) motivated by a broader concern that various terrorist groups are looking to embed explosives in innocuous-looking electronics. Per the Washington Post:
The officials would not provide details on the threats. One example they cited involved a bomb, possibly hidden in a laptop, that exploded on board a Somali plane going from Mogadishu to Djibouti, not a U.S.-bound flight. However, a person familiar with the security warning said the government has long been concerned about the aspirations of a Syria-based terrorist group to build explosive devices hidden inside electronics in a way that would be hard to detect.
On its face, the directive appears less burdensome — and more plausibly motivated by security concerns — than the administration’s infamous travel bans. If a large tube of toothpaste is too easily weaponized to be allowed on a plane, it seems reasonable that the same would be true of a large electronic device. Plus, the list of impacted countries seems less conveniently arbitrary; unlike the travel bans, the new restriction does not give a pass to U.S. ally (and noted terrorism exporter) Saudi Arabia.
Still, there are some reasons to doubt the Trump administration’s good intentions. For one, it’s not clear that would-be plane bombers need to be so clever about hiding their tools. Per the New York Times:
In a series of 70 undercover tests of airport security screening procedures, conducted in 2015 by the Homeland Security inspector general’s office, auditors were able to get fake weapons and explosives past security screeners 95 percent of the time, according to the still-classified report.
(The Transportation Security Administration did adopt “enhanced” pat-down searches two weeks ago, to try and improve on that 5 percent apprehension rate).
More critically, the new restrictions’ implications for business travel appear so profound, it’s hard not to suspect that economic concerns figured into the administration’s thinking.
U.S. airlines are not adversely impacted by the electronics ban, since none offer direct U.S.-bound flights from the affected airports. But for precisely that reason, they stand to benefit from the new rule. As Cornell political scientist Tom Pepinsky noted on Twitter:
In other words, the Trump administration just made taking a direct flight to the Middle East on a foreign airline much less appealing.
Most counterterrorism regulations are cost-benefit propositions: You trade a touch of liberty for a modicum of security. But with this new laptop ban, the administration may see the cost as its own benefit: Trump is “making America safe again” by encouraging business travelers to “buy American.”