Early on Tuesday, March 21st, the TSA posted an emergency amendment to its carry-on policy prohibiting electronics larger than a cell phone in the cabin on flights from a number of airports. The UK announced a similar ban later the same day. This type of restriction has been implemented before, usually when there is real intelligence that an attack may be nearing its final planning stages.
Typically, a move like this occurs when U.S. intelligence (or another country’s intelligence agency) has credible evidence of an imminent attack and they are in the process of arresting or eliminating those responsible, but they are unsure if they have identified everyone involved. These bans are not only a precaution while they locate the suspects but also serve to deter others who may be planning similar attacks around the same time. The bans usually go away after the authorities are comfortable that they have all the people they are looking for, or when they feel that the timing of the attack cycle has been adequately thrown off.
In 2014, TSA was focused on electronic devices as US intelligence had information that the Khorasan group, an al Qaeda off shoot operating in Syria, had plans to try to bomb aircraft using electronic devices either by smuggling or detonating a device. In that instance, TSA screeners paid special attention to electronic devices, but an outright ban wasn’t implemented. In 2006, the UK banned electronics from the cabin for a short period of time when the liquid bomb plot was discovered. The bombers were going to use electronics to detonate the bombs and they weren’t sure how many bombers were involved. The ban was lifted after a few weeks (and tens of thousands of dollars in bag theft later).
Two weeks ago when I myself was traveling through the Charlotte airport, TSA screeners performed an explosive trace detection on my laptop and then opened it up to make sure it turned on. This is usually done either as a result of a specific order to focus on electronics for a period of time, as part of a random screening procedure, or in response to actual intelligence or suspected threats. If you go back to the late 1980s, with the early (and huge) laptops, it was standard practice to have travelers open their laptop and turn it on to prove it worked. This was back when about 1 in every 100 people carried a laptop, not nearly everyone like it is today.
The reason the ban is likely temporary is that they’ve picked up that the attempt may be imminent, so this is an attempt to prevent an attack while US intelligence, military and/or police assets try to identify and apprehend (or eliminate) the attackers.
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