You think it’s a Muslim laptop ban? This picture suggests it’s really a terrorist ban

Airside at Baghdad Airport
The photo is apparently taken airside at Baghdad Airport; the paper says “The Islamic State is right in your home”. Source: Twitter.

The decision by the US and UK to ban carry-on electronics of various sorts from a number of countries in the Middle East has brought out all sorts of unthinking reactions. Trump is driving a lot of people stupid, which is a pity.

An example of the unthought-through reaction is this article at PC Mag, where Sascha Segan says

The DHS notice doesn’t give any evidence of specific threats leading to this new ban, which will go on indefinitely. It doesn’t explain why a bomb can explode in the cabin but not the cargo hold, or why travelers but not airline employees are affected. While it has a 30-question FAQ about the ban, most of it is meaningless weasel words adding up to “trust us.” The more you think about any aspect of this ban, the less it makes sense from a security perspective.

Not to pick on Segan particularly; variations of this article, in hot-take form, were all over the web when the news broke on Monday (US ban) and Tuesday (UK ban).

However, it’s worth remembering – as if you hadn’t had plenty of reminders recently? – that the intelligence services have access to more information than you do.

Liquid memories

Remember the liquids ban of summer 2006? It was imposed out of the blue, and threw airports, airlines and security into near-chaos. Wikipedia has a good summary of why it was introduced: British police (perhaps helped by intelligence services) had uncovered a plot to blow up a plane in mid-air, using liquid explosives in soft drink bottles. In all, more than 20 people were arrested; nine were eventually tried, and seven found guilty of conspiracy to murder.

Now, with that in mind, when the governments of not one but two countries impose sudden bans on the transport of potentially explosive things, you might think that people would take it seriously. There was one occasion when a would-be mass murderer ignited a bomb on the passenger deck of a plane out of Somalia – after apparently being handed the explosives by a ground worker. In a fabulous demonstration of karma, he was sucked out of the hole he’d made in the fuselage, and the plane landed safely. Subsequently, 20 ground staff in Somalia were arrested.

There are suggestions that this latest ban has been under discussion for a couple of weeks, in fact. That’s how intelligence works: gather data, consider risks, act.

The number of people complaining that “it’s just another version of the [Trump] Muslim ban” can’t be thinking clearly. The original “Muslim ban”, as a reminder, included Syria, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

It didn’t include the ones in the US ban: UAE (which includes Dubai), Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, or Morocco. The UK ban includes Tunisia too.

It should be pretty obvious, even if you think Trump is a fool, that this isn’t his idea. It has come from intelligence agencies who are worried about the possibility of a mid-air explosion.

You can see why Islamic State and similar terror groups might want to do something now. IS is being gradually crushed in Mosul, which means that its fighting force is dwindling fast. Its revenues are dwindling too, because its sources – illicit oil sales, “taxes” on the populations it oppresses, and ransoms – are all being squeezed. Lower revenues means less money for weapons and less opportunity to control territory, and the caliphate suddenly looks a lot less attractive.

(None of this is Trump’s doing either. He doesn’t have a “30-day plan to get rid of Isis”. He has no plan, other than “ask someone else to do it and bluster”.)

IS’s oil income has been plummeting as Turkey in particular has cracked down on illicit sales, and the price of oil itself has fallen considerably since IS got its big break.)

Losing the fight

Which brings us to terror groups wanting to make a splash. Simple way: get airside, put a bomb on board. Or whatever. The photo at the top was sent to me by a source on Twitter who watches this stuff. It was originally tweeted by a Twitter account @poihhp – since suspended. I can’t find any data on the account (age or followers) though the lack of responses to it suggests it is pretty new. As the photo caption above says, the paper seems to say “The Islamic State is right in your home”, and claims to have been taken at Baghdad International Airport.

I’ll admit that my ability to read Arabic is nonexistent (I relied on Bing Translate and my source’s slightly better translation). But that looks like a form of the IS flag scribbled on the right-hand side of the paper. They’re holding it in their right hand. I can’t identify the airlines that the two aircraft are from – they don’t seem to be Turkish Airlines or Iraq Airlines. There’s a list of airlines which go through Baghdad International. I can’t identify them from that either.

It’s possible this is a fake, or a jape. But it feels like there’s something authentic there. And remember: you didn’t know why the liquids ban was introduced in 2006, and you probably thought that was stupid too. (The arrests weren’t announced.)

But it turned out not to be. The reasons behind the carry-on ban are likely to be the same.

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