Counterterrorism officials in the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been quietly discussing an outright ban on hand-carried luggage aboard airplanes for weeks now in the wake of intelligence reports that suggest al-Qaida may be planning to target planes around Europe before the Christmas holidays.
The Express newspaper reported that U.K. officials have intelligence that suggests al-Qaida has been planning a high-profile attack on five commercial flights sometime before Christmas. U.S. officials confirmed to NPR that they had been aware of the threat but could not say how far the plot had progressed and whether revealing it publicly now makes it less likely.
The plot, the U.K. newspaper reports and U.S. officials confirm, is thought to involve the smuggling of bombs onto planes bound for major cities in Europe. The plan did not seem to include any U.S.-bound flights, U.S. officials told NPR.
In response, counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been discussing how to prevent the attacks. One remedy under consideration is to ban all carry-on baggage, though there is some question as to whether airlines would push back against such a draconian provision.
Another possible remedy: banning electronic devices from the passenger cabin. Officials are discussing whether to require that electronics such as cellphones, iPads and computers be placed in the cargo hold with checked baggage, which goes through a much more rigorous screening process. Detecting a bomb, if there is one, would be more likely.
U.S. officials have been warning for some time about what they call the “next-generation explosives” developed by al-Qaida. Last year, the head of the Transportation Safety Administration, John Pistole, described an explosive that looked like toothpaste or bathroom caulk but could be used to bring down a commercial aircraft.
The possibility of getting something like that aboard a flight is more likely now, officials say, because of the literally thousands of people with European passports who have joined forces with Islamist extremists in Syria who might be persuaded to be part of a terrorist attack.
Many of those people have joined rebel groups in Syria or the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, which is at odds with al-Qaida’s central leadership. The problem is that intelligence in Syria is patchy at best, and counterterrorism officials don’t know how many of the individuals who travel to Syria to fight have, in the meantime, joined forces with a group affiliated with al-Qaida.
Just last month, a 24-year-old Frenchman named David Drugeon was killed by a cruise missile in Syria. He is thought to have received some training from Ibrahim al-Asiri, al-Qaida’s master bomb-maker. Asiri has specialized in developing bombs with nonmetallic explosive devices that can be concealed in electronics. He successfully smuggled a bomb onto a cargo plane bound for the U.S. in 2010. He had disguised the bomb to look like toner in a computer printer cartridge.