LONDON: U.S.-bound travelers from Europe and the Middle East faced tighter airport security Thursday over fears that Islamist groups are developing new explosives that could be slipped onto planes undetected.
The stepped-up checks were ordered as the U.S. Embassy in Uganda warned of a “specific threat” to attack Kampala’s Entebbe International Airport Thursday evening. As The Daily Star went to press, no attacks had been reported.
The new checks focused on electronic items such as laptops and mobiles, fueling fears that extremists such as Al-Qaeda could use them as their latest tactic in a long campaign of attacks involving aircraft.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the extra security on direct flights to the United States from some overseas airports Wednesday, without citing evidence of any specific plot.
The move comes amid broader Western intelligence concerns that hundreds of Islamist radicals travelling from Europe to fight in the Middle East could pose a security risk on their return.
President Barack Obama warned Sunday that “battle-hardened” Europeans who embrace jihad in Syria and Iraq threaten the United States because their passports allow them to enter the country without a visa.
The airports concerned are located in the Middle East and Europe and were targeted “based on real-time intelligence,” according to an official at the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Britain confirmed it was bolstering security at its airports in response.
Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet, whose country is also stepping up airport security, told RTL-TVI the measures would focus on electronic equipment such as tablets, computers and mobile phones “to make sure there are no explosives.”
Analysts said the move was likely linked to concerns that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was passing on bombmaking expertise to militants fighting in Syria.
The fear is that militants with European passports could then bring these skills back home with them and launch an attack, experts say.
Brooke Rogers of the War Studies Department at King’s College London told AFP that for extremist groups, bringing down an aircraft was the “ultimate prize – if the attackers succeed, it will be spectacular for them.”
Experts say that if anyone could be behind the threat it is Ibrahim al-Asiri, a 32-year-old Saudi believed to be in hiding with AQAP in Yemen’s restive southern provinces.
The terror alert in Uganda further rattled nerves but it was not immediately clear if it was linked to the airport security boost.
Although the U.S. Embassy did not name any group, Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab insurgents have claimed attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the Westgate mall bloodbath, and Djibouti, as well as at home in Somalia.
Despite the increased checks, Britain said the international terror threat level issued by its domestic security service MI5 remained unchanged at substantial, the third-highest grade out of five, where it has been since July 2011.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain was taking a “safety first” approach.
“This is something we’ve discussed with the Americans and what we have done is put in place some extra precautions and extra checks,” he told television channels.
“The safety of the travelling public must come first – we mustn’t take any risks.”
His Downing Street office said there was an “evolving threat” but did not give further details.
The measures threaten disruptions for passengers at the start of the summer holiday season.
But officials insist passengers should not face significant delays and London’s Heathrow airport – one of the world’s busiest international air travel hubs – and Gatwick, south of the capital, were both operating normally Thursday, AFP journalists saw.
Passengers in Britain have long faced tight security measures at airports following high-profile threats including a failed attempt by British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to blow up a U.S.-bound flight in 2001.
Security was further tightened after a plot to detonate “liquid bombs” on transatlantic flights was uncovered in 2006.
A previous high-profile attempt by AQAP to blow up a U.S.-bound plane failed on December 25, 2009 when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear.
The Detroit “underwear bomber” is now serving a life sentence in the United States.