Terrorists able to hide bombs in laptops: Report

A Syrian woman travelling to the United States through Amman opens her laptop before checking in at Beirut international airport on March 22, 2017.
A Syrian woman travelling to the United States through Amman opens her laptop before checking in at Beirut international airport on March 22, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Explosives could escape screening equipment commonly used at airports: US intelligence

ATLANTA • Terrorist groups have developed the capability to plant explosives in electronic devices such as laptops that are undetected by screening equipment commonly used at airports, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe, CNN reported yesterday.

The findings by United States intelligence also suggested that terrorists have obtained sophisticated airport security equipment to test how to effectively conceal the explosives in these devices, the cable news network reported on its website.

The findings over the new capabilities of terrorist groups were a major factor in the move by the Trump administration to ban travellers from 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa from carrying laptops and other large electronic devices on board planes, CNN said.

The US ban applies to all electronic devices larger than an average-sized mobile phone, including game consoles.

Britain followed the US move a few days later, banning "phones, laptops or tablets larger than a normal-sized mobile or smartphone" on direct inbound flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

It specified that the ban applied to devices bigger than 16cm in length, 9.3cm in width and 1.5cm thick - meaning some e-readers like Kindles would be affected.

The Singapore Police Force and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said on March 22 that they were monitoring developments, when asked by The Straits Times if Singapore might change its flight security protocol.

The countries affected deemed the ban as unfair targeting of Muslim nations.

There was also concern that business travellers particularly dependent on their personal devices might avoid the four major hub airports in countries affected by the curbs and switch to competing routes.

No US carriers are affected. But passengers on approximately 50 flights per day from some of the busiest hubs in the Muslim world will be obliged to follow the ruling, Agence France-Presse reported last week.

CNN said it has learnt that through a series of tests conducted late last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) determined that the laptop bombs would be far more difficult for airport screeners to detect than previous versions produced by terrorist groups.

The FBI testing focused on specific models of screening machines used in the US and around the world, the report said.

The US Department of Homeland Security refused to directly confirm or deny the intelligence findings.

"As a matter of policy, we do not publicly discuss specific intelligence information. However, evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in electronics," it told CNN in a statement.

The department said the government is continually re-assessing its intelligence.

"As always, all air travellers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen," the statement said.

Quoting US officials, CNN said the new intelligence makes clear that bomb-makers have become sophisticated enough to hide the explosives while ensuring a laptop would function long enough to get past screeners.

FBI testing found that the laptops could be modified using common household tools.

The intelligence that contributed to the ban on electronic devices was specific, credible and reliable, according to three officials who used the same words to describe it to CNN.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Terrorists able to hide bombs in laptops: Report'. Print Edition | Subscribe