Airport security: mobile phone checks stepped up

Jul 9, 2014

Passengers face more stringent mobile phone checks at airports amid fears of an al-Qaeda plot

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Security in UK airports is being stepped up amid fears that an al-Qaeda "master bombmaker" has trained European jihadists to become suicide bombers. Mobile phones and other devices are coming under particular scrutiny, with passengers on all flights to the US and several other unnamed routes being required to prove that their electronic equipment can be switched on.

The alert was raised at the weekend, when US authorities alleged that Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri has been developing explosives that can be smuggled onto planes and spreading his expertise to foreign fighters in Syria.

In the UK, the Department for Transport is not expecting significant disruption for passengers, but travel experts are advising US-bound passengers to leave plenty of time for extra checks.

Why is airport security being tightened?

Western intelligence analysts believe al-Qaeda bomb-making experts based in Yemen have joined forces with militants in Syria to develop sophisticated explosives that can avoid detection at airports. Officials believe a new generation of al-Qaeda operatives, some of whom are now thought to be in Syria with European passports, are being taught how to make devices to target passenger planes. The militants in Yemen, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have previously managed to bypass airport security to take explosives onto flights. Some US intelligence officials believe that "training complexes" have also been set up in Syria for western jihadists so they can return to their home countries better trained to carry out attacks.

Has a specific plot been uncovered?

Intelligence obtained by the US government has not indicated a specific target or timeline. The current UK threat level for international terrorism remains at "substantial", meaning an attack is a strong possibility. "Substantial" sits in the middle of the threat levels, below "severe" when an attack is deemed highly likely and "critical" when an attack is expected imminently. ABC News quotes a defence source saying the new threat is "different and more disturbing" than previous plots. Since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists have developed several plots exploiting weaknesses in aviation security. AQAP was behind a failed "underwear bomb plot" that targeted a flight from the Netherlands to Detroit in December 2009, as well as two ink cartridge bombs on cargo flights destined for Chicago in October 2010. The underwear bomb evaded airport security but failed to explode fully, while the ink cartridge bombs initially escaped detection but were intercepted at two stopover airports after an intelligence tip-off.

Who is Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri?

Asiri is al-Qaeda's top explosives expert in Yemen, according to Western intelligence officials. The 32-year-old is a former chemistry student from Saudi Arabia and the engineer behind non-metallic bombs designed to outwit airport security. Officials believe such explosives could be hidden in clothes or surgically implanted inside a suicide bomber, reports The Times. Asiri has been one of the priority targets for America’s armed drones.

What new checks are in place?

Travellers have been facing more intrusive pat downs and stringent checks on electronic devices, including mobile phones. The number of body scanners in British airports has apparently doubled from ten to 21. The Wall Street Journal says that more than a dozen foreign airports in Europe, Africa and the Middle East will be tightening their security. This is likely to include more screenings and swabs of travellers and baggage to detect traces of explosives, it says. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told the WSJ that airlines could also identify potential suspects by examining computer information attached to their tickets, such as addresses, phone numbers and credit card numbers. The Department of Transport claims the changes will not cause significant disruption to passengers, but travel experts have said they would be surprised if the heightened security did not lead to delays for passengers.

What checks are being carried out on mobile phones?

Passengers may be forced to switch on their mobile phones and other electronic devices by airport security officials to prove that they do not contain explosives. These checks are being carried out at the boarding gate on all flights to the US and "on some routes into or out of the UK". The Department for Transport is not disclosing which routes are affected. It therefore advises all fliers to make sure their electronic devices are charged before they travel. "If your device doesn't switch on, you won't be allowed to bring it onto the aircraft," it says. Travellers who are unable to switch on their phones may also face additional screening.

Will all travellers be affected?

Travel expert Simon Calder has told ITV that the standard security checks will remain the same for most fliers, but those travelling to the US, Mexico and Canada are likely to face extra checks at their airport gate. They may be asked to turn on their laptop or tablet, he says, to check that it is working, or have extra checks carried out on their hand luggage and shoes. Calder therefore recommends that transatlantic travellers allow plenty of time to get to their gate before flying, particularly as US Independence Day on 4 July will mean a lot of people are travelling through Heathrow and other airports.  

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What about the large head phones they could store enough explosives to bring down a plane.