The specificity of the new rules could hint at the nature of the intelligence it’s based on, says Justin Kelley, the vice president for operations at MSA Security, a large private firm that offers explosive-screening services. The ban could be focused on simply separating items like laptop-bombs from passengers who would need to access them in order to set them off, Kelley says. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for concision and clarity, follows.
Kaveh Waddell: How much has bomb-smuggling technology changed since Richard Reid tried to hide explosives in a shoe in 2001?
Justin Kelley: It’s pretty common, and it was common even before Reid. But now, everything we have on our person has some sort of power source to it, and that’s what they’re looking for. Everything from a laptop to a phone to an iPad—most of those restricted items they want now in checked baggage—they all have a power source, which is what bombers are generally looking for: something to kick off their device.
Waddell: What’s most difficult about designing a bomb that’s hard to detect, and small enough to fit into something like a shoe or underwear?
Kelley: The bombs in underwear were pretty rudimentary—they needed a human element. But if we’re looking at an electronic device, they can be done a whole host of different ways. They don’t necessarily need an actor to set off the device.
The electronic version has been around since we’ve had cellphones. Even before cellphones, you could use a greeting card that sings a holiday tune or a birthday wish—those use power as well. There’s a whole host of things that can be used to initiate a device. But now, we travel with all these electronics on our person, we need to look even harder.
Waddell: DHS said the new ban was created in response to a threat. How do authorities monitor the state of adversaries’ bomb-making skills to have a sense of what to watch for in airports?
Kelley: That intelligence could have been gathered through social media, or people they’re monitoring. Terrorist groups are always changing and adapting to what we put forth as security principles, so this is just another step. When liquids were banned from planes, that was also a product of intelligence, and I’m not surprised they don’t want to disclose the source.
Waddell: What kind of extra screening might luggage be subject to in checked bags that they might not be if they were carried on?
Kelley: Anything on those planes is going to be screened, whether it’s passenger-carried or cargo. This may have been driven by intelligence that someone would use power sources during a flight, that there would need to be some human interaction.
If they were interested in banning electronics entirely, there would be a stronger restriction.
Waddell: So you’re saying that it’s not necessarily that it’s easier to detect a bomb in checked baggage—it could be that separating a person from their electronics breaks a necessary link for using it as a bomb?