Al-Qaeda, Daesh focus on bombs behind carry-on computer ban, say experts

Passengers arrive at Cairo airport's departure lounge on March 22, 2017. The US and UK have tightened airline security on flights from 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa, banning laptops and tablet computers from the plane cabin, warning that extremists plan to target passenger jets with bombs hidden in electronic devices. (AFP / KHALED DESOUKI)
Updated 24 March 2017

Al-Qaeda, Daesh focus on bombs behind carry-on computer ban, say experts

WASHINGTON: The prohibition on carry-on electronics for certain flights to the US and Britain shows both Daesh and Al-Qaeda remain able to mount potent threats to civil aviation despite tighter airport security, experts say.
On Tuesday, US authorities ordered a ban on laptop computers, tablets, cameras and other items larger than cell phones in passenger cabins of direct US-bound flights from certain airports in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan.
Britain imposed similar restrictions on flights from six countries, while France and Canada said they were considering their own measures.
Analysts say an intelligence tip was likely behind the announcement. The New York Times reported that US counterterrorism officials have intelligence that Daesh operatives are developing a bomb to be hidden in laptop computer batteries.
Doing so would bring the group up to the technological level of rival Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), where so-called expert bombmaker Ibrahim Al-Asiri has spent years on a similar effort.
Airport security is much better than just a few years ago, Jay Ahern, the former acting director of the US Customs and Border Control, told AFP.
“But clearly terror organizations continue to target air travel, and they have shown a clear ability to innovate,” Ahern said.
Recent attacks on aircraft in Somalia and Egypt are evidence of a focus by militant groups on developing harder-to-detect bombs — and getting them on flights.
The bomb that blew a hole in the fuselage of a Somalian airline in February 2016, killing one person, is believed to have been built into a laptop computer carried into the passenger cabin. That attack was claimed by the Al-Shabab group.
And Moscow authorities have blamed a cabin-based bomb for destroying an October 2015 Russian charter flight from Sharm El-Sheikh that killed 217 people. Daesh claimed it smuggled a bomb on board in a soda can.
Security services are particularly focused on Asiri, the explosives mastermind of AQAP.
Asiri is believed to be behind the placement of explosive-packed printer cartridges discovered on cargo aircraft headed toward the US in 2010.
He is also tied to the failed underwear bomb AQAP deployed hoping to bring down a US aircraft in 2009.
“He was very innovative,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
“Clearly the question is how many disciples he has taught, and whether AQAP has spread its tentacles into Syria,” where the Daesh is based, Cilluffo said.
The US carry-on electronics ban creates a new layer of inconvenience to travelers, but security experts said forcing electronics through checked baggage screening is indeed safer.
In advanced airports, cargo going into a plane’s hold is screened by computed tomography or CT machines like those used for CAT scans in hospitals, said Nik Karnik, a senior director at Morpho Detection, a leading producer of CT explosive-detection machines for airports.
They are much better than the traditional x-ray machines at boarding checkpoints, Karnik explained.
Rather than viewing a bag from one angle, CT machines create a 360-degree image. They are “looking at both mass and density, trying to determine if it fits within a range of threats that we are looking for,” he said.
The CT machines’ detection algorithms are also regularly updated based on constant contact with aviation security authorities on new threats, he added.
CT machines though have yet to be designed for boarding checkpoints in the airport, making it more secure to put suspect items like computers in checked baggage.
“The goal is to bring CT technology to the checkpoint so you don’t have to take your laptop out of you bag,” said Karnik.
Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado, said that forcing a possible bomb into the hold also reduces the attacker’s chance of success.
“It introduces more room for error to add a timing device (if the plane were delayed, the bomb would detonate on the ground), or a barometric trigger switch,” he told AFP in an e-mail.
“In either case, rough baggage handling may also trigger or render useless the device. (There is) more assurance of the thing detonating if you are holding it and command-detonate it.”

Istanbul court jails human rights activists on terror charges

In this undated photo provided by Amnesty International Turkey, showing Taner Kilic, former chairman of the organisation, talks during an event in Istanbul. (AP)
Updated 4 min 39 sec ago

Istanbul court jails human rights activists on terror charges

  • The prosecution claimed that the hotel gathering was a “secret meeting to organize an uprising,” in order to trigger a “chaos environment” in the country – a claim categorically denied by the defendants

ISTANBUL: Human rights activists, including a former head of Amnesty International’s Turkish branch, have been jailed by an Istanbul court on terror-related charges in a decision condemned as an “outrage” by fellow campaigners.

Amnesty International Turkey’s honorary chair Taner Kilic was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for “terror organization membership.”

Gunal Kursun from the Human Rights Agenda Association; Idil Eser, former executive director of Amnesty International Turkey; and Ozlem Dalkiran, former head of Amnesty International’s communications department, were each handed jail terms of one year and 13 months for “aiding a terror organization.”

Their lawyers said the motive behind the high-profile case, which concluded on Friday, was to silence and intimidate human rights organizations.

Amnesty International has described the case as a travesty of justice.

Idil Eser, a defendant in the case, told Arab News: “It is disappointing and legally concerning to be punished as a human rights defender for acts which are not criminal. It is not a crime to defend human rights. We hope that this conviction which is baseless in legal terms would be annulled at the appeal. It is crystal clear that all defendants in this case are not criminals, because there is not a crime at all.”

The defendants are now expected to appeal the verdict in the case dubbed the ‘Buyukada trial.”

Other human rights activists, including Nalan Erkem, lknur Ustun, Ali Gharavi, Peter Steudtner, Veli Acu, Nejat Tastan and Seyhmus Ozbekli, were acquitted.

The activists were arrested three years ago in a police raid on a hotel on Buyukada Island, near Istanbul, where they were taking part in a workshop. Police seized their computers and phones, and arrested the group on terror charges.

The prosecution claimed that the hotel gathering was a “secret meeting to organize an uprising,” in order to trigger a “chaos environment” in the country – a claim categorically denied by the defendants.

Members of the international community stood in solidarity with the accused and said that the case is politically motivated.

“Another disappointing court verdict against civil rights and civil society in Turkey. Not how we put our relations on a positive track. My thoughts are with imprisoned and families. Solidarity with democratic forces in Turkey!” tweeted Sergey Lagodinsky, chair of the EU-Turkey delegation at the European Parliament.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, voiced concerns that Turkey is targeting and silencing human rights defenders.

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, who observed the hearing, said the verdict is an outrage based on absurd allegations without any evidence and is supported by a pro-government media smear campaign.

“It was a huge disappointment. It has been three years and 12 hearings so far. What we saw is that the court in its verdicts decided to stick with the claims of the government media in Turkey, rather than justice, reason and logic,” he told Arab News.

“We are not only disappointed for these human rights activists in the trial, but also for anyone who believes in justice and peaceful civil society activism in Turkey. But we won’t give up until all are acquitted and we will be campaigning for justice,” he added.

Later this month, prominent civil society figure and businessman Osman Kavala will mark his 1,000th day behind bars over allegations of terror and fomenting chaos in the country by funding human rights activism.

Erdal Dogan, the lawyer for Idil Eser, said defending human rights has never been easy in Turkey.

“However, in recent years, those who defend human rights have been demonized,” he told Arab News.

Dogan says a court decision to maintain the verdict will signify a move away from the modern legal and universal human rights systems.

“In that case, the regime will get out of hand and no civil and independent social monitoring will be applied,” he added.