Is there an active terrorist threat against commercial flights traveling from the Middle East? A dramatic and specific ban on electronic devices affecting over a dozen Middle Eastern airports with flights to the United States and the United Kingdom would seem to suggest so. The ban, requested by the U.S. government, impacts flights from international airports in Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. A confidential U.S. Transportation Security Administration email apparently gave airlines 96 hours to enforce the restrictions, which make exceptions for phones and medical devices. Larger devices such as laptops, DVD players, tablets and cameras must now be checked.
Airlines included in the restrictions are Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudia, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways. About 50 flights a day will be affected, and those are just the flights destined for the United States. Since Royal Jordanian first tweeted about the device ban on March 20, U.S.-bound flights have been restricted in all eight countries. Not long after, British authorities announced similar bans for flights originating in Middle Eastern airports in six countries, reaffirming that the impetus for implementing the measure was likely related to a credible, if not imminent, terrorist threat. Canada has announced that it is considering a device ban as well.
The new measure is probably a response to threats like the laptop bomb used in the failed attack on Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February 2016. The incident left one person dead and forced an emergency landing, but it did not cripple the aircraft. More important, the ban was reportedly enacted in response to intelligence that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has developed non-metal explosives that could fit within small electronic devices and be smuggled onto commercial airlines. The speed with which the order was executed suggests that authorities considered the threat serious enough to risk compromising the sources and methods they used to gather this information.
The economic ramifications of the device ban will be felt most by Middle Eastern airline carriers if consumers choose not to fly with them in an effort to avoid inconvenience. Still, British airlines such as Easy Jet and British Airways, which make regular flights from the countries in question, will also be affected. Moreover, concerns over the security of information in stowed electronics in transit could cause consumers to select routes that are not affected by the device ban.