March 21, 2017 / 10:00 AM / 8 months ago

U.S. bans large electronics from 10 airports, mainly in Middle East

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - The Trump administration confirmed Tuesday it is imposing new restrictions on electronic devices carried by travelers coming to the United States from 10 airports mainly in the Middle East and North Africa in response to unspecified terror threats.

The Department of Homeland Security will require passengers coming to the United States from airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco and Qatar to check electronic devices larger than a cell phone such as tablets, portable DVD players, laptops and cameras.

The airports affected are in Amman, Cairo, Kuwait City, Doha, Dubai, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Casablanca, Morocco; Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Officials said the decision had nothing to do with President Donald Trump’s efforts to impose a travel ban of six majority-Muslim nations. A DHS spokeswoman said the government “did not target specific nations. We relied upon evaluated intelligence to determine which airports were affected.”

On March 6, Trump signed a revised executive order banning citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from traveling to the United States for 90 days. Two federal judges have halted parts of the ban, saying it discriminates against Muslims. Trump has vowed to appeal up to the Supreme Court if necessary.

All 10 airports are in majority-Muslim countries.

The airports are served by nine carriers that fly directly from those cities to the United States about 50 times a day and include Royal Jordanian Airlines, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways, senior government officials said.

The airlines have until Friday to comply with the new restrictions that will be in place indefinitely.

No American carriers were affected by the ban, because none fly directly to the United States from the airports, officials said. But it does apply to U.S. citizens traveling on those flights. It does not apply to crew members on those foreign carriers.

Officials did not explain why the restrictions only apply to travelers arriving in the United States and not for those same flights when they leave the United States.

DHS will also allow passengers to use larger approved medical devices. The agency said the procedures would “remain in place until the threat changes” and did not rule out expanding to other airports if circumstances changed.

DHS said in a statement it “seeks to balance risk with impacts to the traveling public and has determined that cell phones and smart phones will be allowed in accessible property at this time.”

The new restrictions were prompted by reports that terror groups want to smuggle explosive devices in consumer electronic devices, officials told reporters on a conference call Monday.

The government said in a statement it is “concerned about terrorists’ ongoing interest in targeting commercial aviation, including transportation hubs over the past two years.”

The group said “intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The government has been worried about terror groups attempting to bomb a commercial aircraft, but an official on the call repeatedly declined to offer any details about the threat that prompted the move.

Reuters reported Monday that the move had been under consideration since the U.S. government learned of a threat several weeks ago.

U.S. officials have told Reuters that the information gleaned from a U.S. commando raid in January in Yemen which targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula included bomb-making techniques.

AQAP, based in Yemen, has plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP also has boasted of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.

In 2010, security officials in Britain and Dubai intercepted parcel bombs being sent from Yemen to the United States.

The group claimed responsibility for a Dec. 25, 2009 failed attempt by a Nigerian Islamist to down an airliner over Detroit. The device, hidden in the underwear of the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, failed to detonate.

In July 2014, the Homeland Security Department stepped up security of U.S.-bound flights, requiring tougher screening of mobile phones and other electronic devices and requiring them to be powered up before passengers could board flights to the United States. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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