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U.S., Britain Restrict Electronics On Flights From Mideast Countries

Emirates passenger planes are parked at their gates at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. restrictions require most electronic devices, including laptops, tablets and cameras, to be placed in checked baggage on direct flights to the U.S. from eight mostly Muslim countries, including the UAE.
Kamran Jebreili

Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET

Airline passengers coming to the U.S. and Britain on direct flights from a number of majority-Muslim nations must now place most electronic devices, including laptops, tablets and cameras, in checked baggage under stepped-up security measures, the Trump administration and the British government said.

Passengers can still carry smartphones into the plane's cabin, but nothing larger, officials from the two countries added.

The measures took effect Tuesday morning, and in the U.S. they cover about 50 incoming flights a day from the eight countries on the list — Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

All are traditional U.S. allies and none is among the six majority-Muslim nations on President Trump's controversial executive order that seeks to temporarily suspend immigration. The president issued a revised executive order on March 6, and that one, like the original in January, has been halted by the courts.

The six countries cited in Trump's order all have fraught relations with the U.S., and several are plagued by unrest or civil war, including Syria, Libya and Yemen.

In contrast, the countries on the new U.S. airline list are mostly stable, have generally good relations with the U.S. and include four wealthy states in the Gulf.

Britain, meanwhile, has six countries on its list — Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Tunisia.

The differences appear to be based on the different airlines that fly into Britain and the United States. The two countries held consultations before making their separate announcements.

"We have been in close tough with the Americans to fully understand their position," the British government said in a statement.

The U.S. officials said the airplane restrictions are based on intelligence indicating that terrorist groups are still plotting to blow up civilian planes. The officials stress that the latest measure is not related to the president's executive order, but it's certain to draw comparisons amid the ongoing political and legal battle over Trump's immigration order.

Royal Jordanian informs passengers

Royal Jordanian Airlines announced the security steps on Twitter on Monday afternoon. The tweet was deleted shortly afterward, but it prompted Trump administration officials to speak to reporters Monday evening, in advance of the measures taking effect Tuesday morning.

The U.S. action covers 10 airports in the eight countries — Amman, Jordan; Cairo; Istanbul; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; Jiddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

That list appears to include every airport in the region that offers direct flights to the U.S. except one — Israel's main airport just outside Tel Aviv.

U.S. authorities have expressed concerns in the past that explosives could be placed inside electronic devices.

However, the administration officials declined to say specifically how this move would enhance security since it doesn't ban electronic items currently permitted on planes but just requires that most be placed in checked bags.

Passengers can still take smartphones or essential medical devices into the cabin. But larger items, including laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games, will have to be checked.

Recent attacks

The officials cited attacks in recent years by extremists, including the downing of a Russian charter plane in Egypt in 2015, which was apparently caused by an explosive device on the aircraft. The officials also noted airport attacks carried out by gunmen in Brussels and Istanbul in 2016.

U.S. carriers are not affected because none travel directly to the U.S. from airports in the eight named countries. The measure does not cover flights leaving the U.S.

However, Britain said its rules apply to six U.K. carriers that fly back to Britain from the Middle East or North Africa, including British Airways and EasyJet.

American officials said they started reaching out on Sunday to make sure the countries and airlines knew the new regulations were coming.

For the past several years, U.S. authorities have expressed great concern about the bomb-making skills of the al-Qaida satellite in Yemen and have cited group member Ibrahim al-Asiri in particular.

Yemen is on Trump's immigration ban, but there are no direct flights from that country to the U.S. However, Yemen is relatively close to the four Persian Gulf states on the airline list.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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