Homeland Security chief: Airplane terror threat ‘keeps me up at night’

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WASHINGTON — Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Friday that the heightened threat of terrorists taking down a commercial airline is one of his greatest national concerns.

“A thing that keeps me up at night is the intent of terrorists to knock an airplane down in flight,” Kelly told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” Friday night.

While Kelly acknowledged DHS is doing the “best we can” to guard against threats, the department hears frequent chatter through intelligence networks — including some that is “real” and “specific” — which causes it to proceed with an “abundance of caution.”

That caution includes a recent ban on large electronics aboard flights traveling to the US from 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa. Those devices must now be carried in the cargo hold through checked baggage, according to DHS. The sudden moves, attributed to concerns about potential terrorist attacks, have created additional logistical headaches for airline staff and passengers.

Kelly added that he’s been in talks with at least one of the 10 airports, which suggested, if the DHS were willing, it would let passengers bring large electronics on the plane with them if they agreed to have them opened up and checked for explosive residue before boarding.

He added that he is considering that proposal.

Also, Kelly called out some “irresponsible” reporting by various news outlets that suggested the ban on electronics from the 10 airports was linked to racial profiling or was targeted to benefit US airlines.

All 10 banned airports are in majority Muslim countries, but Kelly said the religion of the countries was never one of the factors he looked into.

Intelligence reports have indicated that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in batteries and battery compartments. The “threat is real” for airline passengers, Kelly said, adding: “I guess they’d be forced to read a book or a magazine or talk to their kids. I’d rather them have that inconvenience than be a flaming ball of fire at 10,000 feet.”

Kelly added that if intelligence showed any other threats he would “have no hesitation” of expanding the limitation on airplanes bound to the US from other countries in addition to the ones already subject to the large electronics ban.

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