Britain has taken the dramatic move to ban laptop computers and tablets from the cabins of planes flying to the UK from six countries, amid fears of a new terror threat.
The move affecting thousands of passengers coming from six predominantly-Muslim countries mirrors a similar measure imposed by the US, citing an attempt by the Islamist al-Shabaab group to bring down a jet in Somalia using a laptop bomb.
The British Government’s decision follows the receipt of specific intelligence reports, according to security sources.
One US official quoted by CNN said new information received in recent weeks showed an affiliate of al-Qaeda was working on a technique to hide explosives inside the battery compartment of electronic devices.
Downing Street refused to discuss any specific terrorist plot, but action hitting 15 airlines with the extra restrictions was taken after Theresa May met aviation experts on Tuesday morning.
Ministers said they understood the “frustration” the extra measures would cause passengers but said they are working with the industry to minimise the impact.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The safety and security of the travelling public is our highest priority.
“That is why we keep our aviation security under constant review and put in place measures we believe are necessary, effective and proportionate.”
The six countries affected are: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Devices measuring more than 16cm in length, 9.3cm in width, or 1.5cm depth will be banned from the cabin and need to be placed into hold luggage and checked-in before going through security.
Downing Street said the measure was effective immediately, but would not give details as to why the decision had been taken now. No 10 did say UK security services have been “in close touch” with their US counterparts during the decision to implement the ban.
The US electronics measure, announced late on Monday, affected nine airlines flying from 10 specific airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE, including Dubai, the world’s busiest airport for international travellers.
An incident last year appears to have caused particular alarm, after al-Shabaab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu. The explosion was small, but the bomb was particularly placed by the extremist so as to blow a hole in the side of the passenger cabin.
Experts said that if the plane was at a higher altitude, the small blast in the passenger area could have triggered a bigger explosion due to the pressurised cabin and caused the jet to crash.
As it was, the plane managed to land after reaching an altitude of only 11,000 feet.
While the countries affected by the new ban all have Muslim-majority populations, sources stressed that the rule change was entirely intelligence-led.
They said the rationale behind the changes should not be confused with the anti-immigrant sentiments widely thought to have driven highly controversial policies Donald Trump is seeking to introduce in America, described collectively as a “Muslim ban”.
However, King's College London and Geneva Centre for Security Policy research fellow Jean-Marc Rickli said that when faced with specific intelligence it was more usual for a global ban to be issued, rather than limiting action to certain countries.
Dr Rickli cited incidents including the attempted 2001 shoe-bombing plot, that sparked global footwear checks for passengers, and the restrictions that followed the 2006 attempt to detonate liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks.
“If they have critical intelligence that something could happen fine, but the measures that they are taking shows a mismatch with the threat,” he added.
“As soon as you issue a ban like this, from a terrorist perspective you will just change your operating plan – instead of flying from Doha or Dubai you just fly from Amsterdam or Paris.”
The ban came amid warnings Isis could move into “insurgency mode” with the loss of key strongholds across Syria and Iraq, focusing its attention on inciting terror attacks abroad rather than gaining territory.
The move is also likely to further antagonise the government of Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose relations with western European countries have become increasingly acrimonious. Turkey has already condemned the American action as unfair and demanded that it should be reversed.
Kindles and other e-readers will also be among devices affected, along with hybrid items such as the Microsoft Surface and iPad Pro, and the new Nintendo Switch gaming system. Some travellers will be forced to pay extra fees for a checked bag if they want to use the gadgets at their destination.
Most smartphones, including the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7, will still be eligible to travel in cabin baggage. However, travel organisation Abta warned laptops and tablets are not typically covered by travel insurance policies for loss, damage or theft if placed in the hold.
Air industry consultant John Strickland warned that the ban will cause “headaches for airlines and customers” but said carriers have “no choice but to put security first” when official advice is given.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: “We understand the frustration that these measures may cause and we are working with the aviation industry to minimise any impact. These new measures apply to flights into the UK and we are not currently advising against flying to and from those countries. Those with imminent travel plans should contact their airline for further information.”
Downing Street said all airlines affected were “being informed of the new requirements”. UK carriers include British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2.com, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson.
Foreign carriers affected by UK ban are Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airways, Atlas-Global Airlines, Middle East Airlines, Egyptair, Royal Jordanian, Tunis Air, Saudia.
On the launch of the US restrictions the Department of Homeland Security said extremists were seeking “innovative methods” to bring down passenger planes, adding in a statement: “Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”
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