Latest TSA alert: remote-control toys

ByThomas Frank, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- Airport security screeners stepped up scrutiny of remote-controlled toys Monday after authorities said terrorists could use them to detonate bombs.

"Credible specific information" indicates that terrorists are looking at using remote devices that can trigger an explosive, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said in a statement.

The agency said there's no indication of a timeline or a plot.

"Intelligence and law enforcement have developed information that terrorists are interested in using remote-controlled toy vehicles as part of their tactics," TSA chief Kip Hawley said in an interview. "There were some dots that came together."

Airline passengers including children who carry remote-controlled toys to checkpoints may face additional screening, such as a pat-down search. Remote devices are still allowed in airplane cabins, though the TSA encourages travelers to put them in checked bags.

Hawley added, "Using a children's toy as a mask for the device is … very specific tactic that if we know about, it can be defeated."

TSA screeners briefed about the threat have been told to pay special attention to remote-controlled toys, particularly if they are packed in cluttered carry-on bags.

AJ Castilla, a screener at Boston's Logan Airport and an official in a screeners' union, said the bulletin he read at work Monday was "nothing new, really. It reaffirms the importance of checking electronics and components."

Remote controls on toys and items such as garage-door openers transmit radio waves and can be converted to crude detonators, though sophisticated terrorists shun them, said aviation security consultant Rich Roth, a former Secret Service agent. Such a bomb could be detonated prematurely, thus defeating a terrorist's plans, he said.

"The problem has always been that there are so many kids with toys out there that if some kid fires up a toy and sets off a [terrorist] bomb, that's not good," Roth said.

He said intelligence reports probably indicate that "some cadre that isn't very sophisticated is thinking about using those."

The TSA said one factor prompting the alert was the posting this summer of a YouTube video explaining in Arabic how to detonate a bomb with a remote-controlled toy. The video, now removed, was narrated by a University of South Florida graduate student who was arrested in August on charges of carrying four pipe bombs in his car trunk.

"We can't ignore it, but by no means is that what is driving" the alert, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said.

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