New restrictions on travel and electronics

A new set of security policies announced by the federal government will add more restrictions for international passengers traveling into the United States.  Many of these travelers are also USD international students who return home to their families and friends in between semesters.

The new TSA regulations will require several airlines including Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, all based in the Middle East and North Africa to prevent travelers bound for the U.S. from taking their laptops, tablets, and several other large electronic devices in their carry-on luggage, according to The Washington Post.  Of all the airlines on the list, not one of them is American based.    

The U.S. government has pointed to recent intelligence that indicates the Islamic State is developing new methods for hiding explosives in portable electronic devices. Reports from the New York Times also suggest that this practice has been attempted by other terrorist groups of the region such as Al Qaeda in the recent past.

Whether this intelligence points to specific plans on the part of the Islamic State remains unclear.

According to the NYT, Republican Representative Peter King, who sits on the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees, claimed that the ban was in response to a tangible threat.

“It was based on recent intelligence reports which are fairly recent and which constitute intelligence of something possibly planned,” he said.

These new regulations on electronics come on the heels of the Trump administration’s executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority nations. The “Muslim Ban,” as it was called, seemed to result in a great deal of distress and criticism across the country and within the University of San Diego community.

Elona Bebla, a sophomore international relations major and Catholic Relief Services University Ambassador, was one of the many students who questioned the usefulness and the legality of the ban at the time.

“I’m all about national security, but for me it just doesn’t seem like these policies are being thought through,” Bebla said.

She said the new regulations on electronics are no different for her.

“I see this recent policy change as part of a greater trend with this new administration,” Bebla said. “It really just feels like our enforcement resources are being wasted.”

Others around campus share this sentiment. Mohammed Alzamel is a sophomore whose family lives in Kuwait, one of the countries included in the new restrictions.

“It isn’t a disincentive for my parents and other family members to travel to the U.S., but it is a targeted restriction that I don’t think is fair,” Alzamel said.

Alzamel also questioned the practical purpose of the policy.

“If they wanted to ensure security, why not enforce these regulations universally?” Alzamel said.

Ahmed Al Marzooqi is an international student and finance major from the United Arab Emirates who often returns to the U.A.E. to visit his family. Marzooqi flies out of one of the airports implicated in the new electronics ban.

“Every time I’m in the airport in [the United Arab Emirates], I notice that the American flights are empty, and this is because everyone, including myself, is flying Emirates to get into the U.S.,” Marzooqi said.

Sadiya Hassan is a sophomore with relatives in Saudi Arabia, another country implicated in the ban. Hassan pointed out another criticism of the electronic ban. Her cousin travels for business, and she highlighted that, for students, journalists, or international business travelers, an inability to work on their laptops during a 15-hour flight provides a challenge.

“Having my laptop on a flight isn’t that important for me, but I can see people like my cousin having to choose a different airline because using a laptop is absolutely necessary for them,” Sadiya said.

Many in the academic research community have pointed to inconsistencies that seem to eliminate the possibility that these restrictions on electronics will be effective in protecting against potential threats.

Nicholas Weaver is a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. In an interview with The Guardian, Weaver questioned the new limitations on such grounds.

“If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold,” Weaver said.

Erroll Southers of the Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies Program at the University of Southern California voiced similar criticisms.

“[The electronic ban] does little to minimize the threat of a remote controlled [improvised explosive device],” Southers said in an interview with The New York Times.

This apparent divide between the new regulations and the administration’s espoused goals of increasing homeland security is why Marzooqi is considering possible alternative motives for this change in policy.

“This ban is focused only on a few specific airlines flying out of particular airports- basically it’s not aimed at the people, it’s aimed at the airlines themselves,” he said.

For him, the restrictions seem much more business motivated.

“I see it as a way to attract more customers to the American competitors at these airports,” he said.

Abraham Newman, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, agrees with his assessment.

“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures—Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways—have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive subsidies from their governments. These airlines have been worried that President Trump was going to retaliate, and this may be that retaliation,” he wrote in a piece for The New York Times.

The questions and concerns of policy analysts, business travelers, and students within the USD community all seem to challenge both the function and the motivation of this new policy. The degree to which these new regulations will serve our national security goals remains to be seen.

Glenn McDonell & Daniel Bushner | Contributors