Just over one month ago, the US announced that as a security measure, laptops, tablets, and even mini-tablets would be banned indefinitely from the cabins of 9 non-domestic airlines with direct flights from the Middle East and northern Africa to the US.  In reality, the cabin laptop ban implies one of two things.  Either—disturbingly–that no international flight from anywhere in the US and no domestic flight anywhere is safe from a terrorist bringing a laptop filled with explosives into a passenger cabin or that US protectionism is the ban’s underlying motivation, to hurt international airlines from places like Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and Qatar. I thought that over the last month someone in the US would reverse this wrong decision, but since that has not occurred, I wish to make my disagreement with the decision a matter of public record.

I believe that that the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) cabin laptop ban cannot be based on security considerations alone and has the perverse impact of actually increasing the terrorist threat confronting Americans. 

In fact, the US’s reaction to the danger of a terrorist boarding a flight with a bomb hidden in a laptop or tablet is a startling admission of its inability to keep Americans safe from terrorists. By implementing “extreme vetting” of persons and their carry-ons on all US domestic flights and international flights to the US.

Why?  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security explained its decision as follows: “We have reason to be concerned about attempts by terrorist groups to circumvent aviation security…Implementing additional security measures enhances our ability to mitigate further efforts against the overseas aviation industry.”

But what are these additional security measures? Banning laptops and iPads from cabins, but not from the cargo hold because a laptop bomb is more dangerous in the cabin than it is in the cargo hold? This is an admission by DHS that it believes that no airport’s security measures, whether technological, animal or human, can stop terrorists from boarding flights or from detecting bombs hidden in laptops or tablets.

This admission is especially sharp considering the advanced security in some of the banned airports, which then-candidate Donald Trump praised as “incredible” and first class, in contrast to American airports.  In light of the threat of terrorists with laptop bombs flying to the U.S, and the admission that the U.S. government believes it cannot stop them, why hasn’t the U.S applied the cabin laptop ban to all incoming flights from anywhere in the world and to all domestic flights, just as it applies the now well-known ban on liquids of a certain amount from all flights?

The select ban on laptops is disturbing in a way that the ban on liquids is not.  Because while the cabin laptop ban might keep the millions of passengers who fly to the U.S. from ten select countries safer, it likely increases the risk for tens of millions of other travelers who are traveling from other countries or who board domestic flights in the US.

How so?  If a terrorist is smart enough to build and conceal a bomb in a laptop that cannot be detected by machines, experts or security screening systems, then he is surely smart enough to select one of the 240 airports with direct flights to the US that are not covered by the ban.  In fact, his preference would be to blow up a plane originating from one of these 240 airports to further spread the fear and terror as well as disrupt air travel the world over.

Alternatively, he would simply check-in his laptop filled with undetectable explosives, getting it stored in any plane’s cargo hold.  Then, upon landing and entering the country, he could select a domestic airline on which to carry his explosive-filled laptop or tablet; he could pick any metro or bus, or he could detonate the bomb at any public gathering site. 

Speaking as an American, I am aware of the irony that flights from the ten predominantly Muslim countries with some of the safest and “incredible” airports and hosting some of the world’s best airlines which are affected by the ban will become safer than all US airlines and all flights destined for the US from the 240 airports unaffected by the prohibition, on which American passengers are more likely to be flying.  Those are the airports from which the laptop-bomb threat will then become a reality.  American citizens will not be safer in the air—instead, the risk will be shifted to them.

Indeed, a terrorist group might choose to activate cells in the United States to use laptop bombs on domestic flights or on flights departing from the United States, because after all, the DHS made clear that “[t]here is no impact on domestic flights in the United States or flights departing the United States. Electronic devices will continue to be allowed on all flights originating in the United States.”

It is no surprise, then, that the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, has stated that “[t]he current measures are not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate.  Even in the short term, it ‘s hard to understand their effectiveness.”

We can do better than DHS’s select laptop cabin ban.

We should use the wrong decision of this cabin laptop ban as an opportunity to enact a framework for “extreme vetting” (to borrow and adapt a phrase from U.S. President Donald Trump) of passengers and their carry-on luggage to address the real security threat of terrorists with laptop bombs that intelligence services have identified.

Such an approach should aim to a) keep terrorists off planes in the first place and b) screen laptops to ensure that they do not contain explosives.  Passengers who wish to carry laptops on planes would go to newly-created laptop screening lanes at security checkpoints, where they would be interrogated, and their laptops would be examined to make sure they do not contain any explosives.

Of course, in light of the significant flaws in the cabin laptop ban, we might conclude that the ban was motivated not by security concerns, but by economic protectionism.  In that case, our government should call it as it is and not use false claims of a safety hazard as a basis for discriminatory action against individual foreign airlines and airports.

Ronald K. Noble Newspaper

Ronald K. Noble founded RKN Global DWC LLC in Dubai after having served as INTERPOL Secretary General between 2000-2014. Ronald Noble was elected Secretary General three times and became the first official to visit all of INTERPOL’s 190 member countries.

Noble is credited with transforming INTERPOL into a 24/7 global police organization–regularly deploying Incident Response Teams (IRTs) worldwide to confront serious crimes, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters.


Marjam Lindsbro
Dubai, UAE (Dubai does not have a zip code.)
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