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US intelligence warns of laptop bombs that can fool airport scanners

Reports suggest terror groups might have sophisticated airport security equipment to test and improve their bombs, a leading reason why the US and UK banned electronic devices larger than mobile phones as cabin baggage from many countries.

world Updated: Apr 01, 2017 19:27 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
US intelligence,laptop,bomb-maker
A report suggested bomb-makers are able to pack laptops with explosives and still get them to switch on.(AFP File)

The US intelligence has warned of an alarming level of sophistication by al Qaeda and Islamic State bomb-makers, who can plant explosives inside electronic devices which can go undetected by standard screening equipment used at most airports.

Multiple US media reports suggested that the terror groups might have used sophisticated airport security equipment to test and improve their devices. One report suggested bomb-makers with these outfits are able to pack laptops with explosives and still get them to switch on — just long enough to fool security screeners, despite the missing batteries.

These intelligence inputs collected and analyzed in the past few months were the leading reasons for the US and UK banning electronic devices larger than mobile phones as cabin baggage on direct incoming flights from eight Muslim-majority West Asian and African countries recently.

But given the new intelligence, questions are being asked if the current restrictions are broad enough and whether they be extended to other destinations, and whether other countries that have a long history of dealing with terrorism could consider similar steps.

“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,” the department of homeland security told CNN in a statement.

“The US government continually reassesses existing intelligence and collects new intelligence. This allows the department and the transportation security administration to constantly evaluate our aviation security processes and policies and make enhancements when they are deemed necessary to keep passengers safe. As always, all air travellers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen.”

The intelligence community around the world has long prepared for any and every foreseen threat from terrorists trying new ways to smuggle explosives aboard.

Richard Calvin Reed carried them in his shoes in 2001. In 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab packed his underwear with explosive that he set off when his flight entered US airspace, but was muscled down by fellow passengers alarmed by smoke and foul smell.

In 2011, al Qaeda managed to load explosives packed inside printer cartridges inside electronic printers onto the cargo holds of two US bound flights from Sanaa, Yemen. They were detected and defused on a timely tip-off from Saudi Intelligence.

The present threat of a laptop laden with explosive was first detected in February 2016, when a bomb in the cavity meant for a CD-ROM exploded on a flight in Somalia while the plane was midair. The plane had not reached cruising height and the pilots brought it down without casualties.

Bomb-makers of al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State are now trying to use the battery space, while still be able to switch on the device, to fool screening personnel.

First Published: Apr 01, 2017 16:15 IST