The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday announced an unprecedented restriction on incoming flights from 10 international airports in eight countries, including Turkey. Under the new rules, passengers will have to place their personal electronic devices larger than a smartphone in their checked baggage. Hours later, the United Kingdom introduced a similar - but suspiciously different - ban on laptops.
On the surface, the electronics ban appears to have been introduced in response to a specific threat. A U.S. official, CNN reported Tuesday evening, claimed that there was "recent intelligence [indicating that] al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in batteries of commercial electronic devices." In other words, terrorists would try to turn laptop batteries into explosives and detonate them aboard U.S.-bound international flights.
So far, so good. But there are obvious problems with the "national security" argument.
First of all, forcing passengers to place their electronic devices in their checked baggage is a terribly ineffective method to prevent a terror attack. It would not take a genius to remotely detonate an improvised explosive device in the cargo compartment or to attach a timer to a laptop battery.
Another problem is that the list of airports covered by the electronics ban makes little sense. At Istanbul International Airport, U.S.-bound passengers are screened at least three times - upon entering the terminal, after passport checks and before boarding the flight. (That's twice the amount of checks at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.) At each security checkpoint, passengers are expected to turn on their electronic devices to ensure that they do not pose a threat. In addition to standard checks, some passengers are randomly searched before they are allowed aboard the aircraft. At Casablanca's Mohamed V Airport, which is also included in the list, international passengers go through two checkpoints without having to power on their computers and other electronic devices before boarding their flights.
Finally, if U.S. and U.K. authorities are genuinely concerned about an impending terror attack aboard an international flight, it would probably be smarter to expand the ban's scope to cover all airlines - including American and European airlines operating flights to both countries. It is important to recall that the al-Qaida militants who perpetrated the 9/11 terror attacks were aboard American planes. Sixteen years later, there is no reason why terrorists, along with their explosive laptops, should not fly Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Delta or United. The selective approach of U.S. and U.K. security experts, coupled with the fact that the U.K. ban includes 14 airlines but does not cover airports in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, raises questions about their ulterior motives - a trade war.
In the wake of the electronics ban, there is no shortage of experts maintaining that the new restriction is an arbitrary act of protectionism designed to hurt the international competitors of American companies. To be clear, the above-mentioned shortcomings of the restriction supports the claim that Washington and London have just started a trade war to protect American and European airlines from their competitors.
At a time when the Turks are building a new international airport in Istanbul that will be one of the world's largest transit hubs, the idea that Turkish Airlines is being deliberately targeted makes sense to a lot of people. The recent emergence of Turkey's largest city as a leading destination for international travelers, too, raises questions about the laptop ban's unstated goals. In 2015, Istanbul Atatürk became Europe's third largest airport, as 62 million passengers passed through it. And Turkish Airlines was voted Europe's best airline for the sixth consecutive time last year by Skytrax, a leading airline passenger survey organization.
The bottom line is that the electronics ban implies that terrorists hail from certain countries as opposed to others - an assumption that seriously weakens the "national security" argument that U.S. and U.K. officials invoke to defend their actions. Ironically, some of the countries targeted by the ban, including Turkey, remain on the frontlines in the war against Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
At the end of the day, starting a trade war could backfire and hurt American and British companies - not to mention the global marketplace itself. As U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said: "The most terrifying words in the English language are: I am from the government and I am here to help." Washington and London should know better.