Trump’s ‘Muslim laptop ban’ makes little sense

Ishaan Tharoor writes: There are quite a few reasons to be both perplexed and skeptical about the new rules. Security experts interviewed by a number of outlets were bemused by the decision. Some doubted that placing laptops in cargo holds would be any safer than carrying them aboard. Journalists and researchers also feared that the measures would risk compromising sensitive information and sources once their laptops are no longer in their immediate possession.


“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with the Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cellphone is a computer.”

Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at aviation consultancy firm StrategicAero Research in London, told Al Jazeera that the move seems to contradict the U.S. federal aviation authority’s own stated concerns over the presence of lithium batteries (which are found in laptops and other such devices) in a plane’s cargo hold. He also noted that the new edicts wouldn’t deter a terror attack launched from an airport in Paris or Brussels — European capitals where jihadist cells have already carried out deadly and spectacular attacks.

“It does nothing to prevent security [threats] from places like France that have suffered a lot of terrorism in recent years,” said Ahmad. “How would Homeland Security mitigate against a passenger from France with a device in the cabin in that situation?”

The answer, critics suggest, is that the electronics ban is not about security.

“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” wrote political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.”

Farrell and Newman suggested Tuesday’s order is an example of the Trump administration “weaponizing interdependence” — using its leverage in a world where American airports are key “nodes” in global air travel to weaken competitors. My colleague Max Bearak detailed how this could be a part of Trump’s wider protectionist agenda. In February, President Trump met with executives of U.S. airlines and pledged that he would help them compete against foreign carriers that receive subsidies from their home governments. [Continue reading…]

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