WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe that ISIS and other terrorist organizations have developed innovative ways to plant explosives in electronic devices that FBI testing shows can evade some commonly used airport security screening methods.
Heightening the concern is U.S. intelligence suggesting that terrorists have obtained sophisticated airport security equipment to test how to effectively conceal explosives in laptops and other electronic devices.
The intelligence, gathered in the last several months, played a significant role in the Trump administration’s decision to prohibit travelers flying out of 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa from carrying laptops and other large electronic devices aboard planes.
The findings might raise questions about whether the ban is broad enough.
Through a series of tests conducted late last year, the FBI determined the laptop bombs would be far more difficult for airport screeners to detect than previous versions terrorist groups have produced.
The FBI testing focused on specific models of screening machines that are approved by the Transportation Security Administration and are used in the U.S. and around the world.
“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 said in a statement.
“The U.S. government continually re-assesses existing intelligence and collects new intelligence. This allows DHS and TSA 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 travelers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen.”
U.S. authorities have said the electronics ban is focused on the eight countries in part because of intelligence indicating a greater threat there.
Intelligence and law enforcement assessments done in recent months also indicate that, though the broader vulnerabilities exist, the U.S. has more confidence in detection machines and security screeners at airports in the U.S. and Europe. Advanced technology and training helps mitigate the risk.
The U.S. and European countries use a layered approach to security screening that goes beyond X-ray equipment, according to U.S. officials, including the use of bomb-sniffing dogs and explosive-trace detection.
Aviation security expert Robert Liscouski, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, said limiting the ban to eight countries makes sense based on the capability and locations of terrorist groups.
Not only are U.S. and European airports better protected, he said, but developed countries have a “better policy regime” that allows them to set standards and ensure uniform compliance.
“We don’t have the same level of confidence in other areas of the world because we don’t have the government bodies and stature to assure compliance,” said Liscouski, president of Secure Point Technologies.
When it originally announced the electronic ban, the TSA issued a statement explaining that it “works closely” with other countries to protect the traveling public.
“TSA is confident in the security of all of our last point of departure airports,” the statement said. “TSA regularly assesses the effectiveness of security at all foreign airports served by U.S. air carriers and foreign air carriers that provide last point of departure services to the United States. This ensures international airports maintain a level of security consistent with international standards.”
When the electronics ban was announced, U.S. officials said they were concerned that terrorists had developed ways to hide explosives in battery compartments.
But the new intelligence makes clear that the bomb-makers working for ISIS and other groups have become sophisticated enough to hide the explosives while ensuring a laptop would function long enough to get past screeners.
Though advanced in design, FBI testing found the laptops can be modified using common household tools.
FBI experts have tested variants of the laptop bombs using different battery and explosive configurations to assess how difficult it would be for airport screeners to detect them.
The intelligence that contributed to the ban on electronic devices was specific, credible and reliable, according to three officials who used the same words to describe it. One official called the intelligence “hair-raising.”
At the same time, they also said there was no single, overwhelming piece of intelligence that led to the ban, rather it was an accumulation of intercepted material and “human intelligence.”