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Expert Weighs In On New Security Steps For U.S.-Bound Flights

In the wake of the failed Christmas-day bombing attempt on a U.S.-bound airliner, the United States has implemented more stringent security measures focusing on passengers from 14 countries.

As of today, travelers from the four countries that Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria) and 10 others of interest to counterterrorism officials (Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen) will be required to undergo "enhanced screening" at checkpoints, including pat downs and higher scrutiny of luggage.

RFE/RL's correspondent Abubakar Siddique speaks to Shadi Hamid, a Middle East and security-policy expert at Brookings Institution's Doha Center, to gauge how the procedures will be implemented and how they might affect Washington's future relations with some of the countries on the list.

RFE/RL: What will these new procedures mean for the ordinary passenger from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the 14 countries on the list?

Shadi Hamid: If I understand correctly, the restrictions are that they all have to be patted down and that all their carry-ons will be hand searched. So those are the two main regulations that have been introduced, and it targets the people from these specific 14 countries.

RFE/RL: What necessitated these new measures focusing on passengers flying from or belonging to the states on the list?

Hamid: Personally I am not very convinced it is necessary. That's a decision that the U.S. government, and in particular the Transportation Security Administration, made. But whether or not that's actually necessary or even if it enhances the security of America, I think that's an open question. And I think there is quite a lot to suggest that these regulations are really about reassuring Americans and it is part of a general hysteria that we have seen in the media the last week in response to the Christmas bomber plot.

RFE/RL: How effective you think these new measures will be in keeping the U.S. mainland safe from attacks and in improving air-travel security?

Hamid: There is nothing to suggest that it would improve travel security. Terrorists can adapt to regulations, they can change their tactics, they can change their tactics, they can change their strategies.

They are going to see these new regulations and they will find ways to get around them. For example pat-downs won't include the crotch area. Obviously, terrorists can put things in certain areas where security won't be checking. There are ways for terrorists to get around these security precautions....

In addition, these apply only to international flights going into the U.S. Terrorists can go on domestic flights -- or what about people who are already in the U.S? So, I mean, there are just so many different variables there. I think the major point here is that you can never get terrorist attacks down to zero.

RFE/RL: In your overall prognosis, what needs to be done to make air travel safer, to protect the United States from potential terrorists flying into the country?

Hamid: I think the most important thing is screening people before they get into the U.S. That's what could have stopped the Christmas bomber [Umar Farouk] Abdulmuttalab. And we -- the U.S. -- had warnings that this person has extreme views. His father reported him to the relevant U.S. Embassy. So I think we have to do a better job of being able to process information effectively.

RFE/RL: In your assessment will Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria and the other 14 countries on the list be keen to follow the new security procedures, considering that the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have already enhanced their screening efforts?

Hamid: I don't think these governments really have a choice. They can protest as much as they want and they probably should. These things are already targeting their citizens and they have a right to be concerned and even angry about that. Now, whether or not that actually changes U.S. policy, that's a different question.

RFE/RL: Four of the countries -- Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan -- are on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. What kind of fallout do expect from the other 10 countries on the list, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia -- countries whose cooperation is central to countering Al-Qaeda and other extremist networks?

Hamid: There is certainly the risk of some fallout but it's worth keeping in mind that these countries have already been targeted for additional security post-9/11. So, this kind of targeting of certain countries has been there for a while; it is worse now with additional regulations. I am sure there will be greater concerns expressed in the coming weeks. And that's something certainly for the U.S. to keep in mind that this affects [President Barack] Obama administration's public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East.

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