As part of the airstrikes into Syria against ISIL the United States also decided to hit some old Al Qaeda friends – apparently these folks were planning to put bombs in electronic devices and smuggle them onto airplanes. Here’s the story along with a short soundbite from me on The Today Show.
This brings up the question of feasibility. The possibility of smuggling an explosive into a laptop computer, or even a tablet or smart phone, has been around for quite sometime. Some of my more experienced travelers may remember a time when laptops were a new invention. You didn’t put them through an x-ray at the airport because no one knew if the x-rays would hurt the electronics, but you did have to power your laptop on at the checkpoint. That way the screener could see that it worked which reduced the chances you put a bomb in there.
I heard only anecdotally that the FBI did an experiment to determine if they could put a bomb inside a working laptop and it was successful, but I never saw anything official on it. Doesn’t sound like it would be that difficult under the right conditions and with the right expertise.
After 9/11 everyone’s laptop started going through the x-rays and they continue to this day. So should we be worried about this threat?
There is some good news and bad news here. I think the bad news is from older laptops more than newer ones. Older laptops contained CD drives, hard drives fans and other moving parts so are much larger than the newer solid-state storage device systems. Newer laptops don’t have CD slots, nor fans because there aren’t any moving parts.
Therefore, it’s easier to conceal a device in the larger older laptops. These also have more than just a circuit board and if you’ve ever seen one on an x-ray scanner it looks like a Rorschach test. It takes a trained eye to be able to see one.
Also, you don’t need a lot of explosives to take down a plane. You need enough to puncture a decent sized hole in the fuselage, at altitude and ideally (from the terrorists perspective) placed near the fuel tank or hydraulic lines.
The more important point to remember about all of this is that despite all of our expense, technology, personnel and reduction of our civil liberties, bad guys are still trying to blow up planes. It’s not time to relax – in fact, it may be time to double down.