Bribery in Nigeria, daggers in Yemen, drugs in Pakistan: Airport security in the 14 countries the U.S. has asked to look for terrorists

Graeme Wood Contributor
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Last week the White House listed 14 countries whose nationals were deemed dangerous enough to require extra scrutiny when they travel to and within the United States. Flying in America with a Nigerian or Yemeni passport has never been easy, and now thanks to Umar Abdulmutallab, Nigerians and Yemenis are supposed to put up with a crotch-intensive frisking as well.

Of course, travel in the opposite direction, from the U.S. to these 14 countries, has never been easy either. I happen to be in a good position to compare: in the last few years I have flown to and from 11 of the 14 countries alleged to be terrorist breeding grounds, and I know others who have been to the other three and can tell their impressions. And I have in my possession a passport cover that makes my passport look, to all but careful inspection, like a Yemeni travel document. Because I was curious, and because I enjoy messing with the TSA, I tried an experiment and took a trip from Washington’s Reagan Airport to Atlanta, Georgia, traveling under what looks like a Yemeni passport. (If I had really been thinking ahead, I would have worn a codpiece as well, just to see the look on their faces when they frisked me.) How would the screeners treat me, and how would it compare with the attentions of government officials at airports in the 14 designated countries?

Certainly my experience could not be worse than in Nigeria. I have never been there, but it is known to be one of the worst countries for an air arrival in the world. A petroleum engineer who flew into Lagos multiple times told me the airport officials had become so corrupt that for efficiency’s sake they had all but erected a sign stating that a $30 bribe would allow easy passage into the country. His company gave each employee $30 cash, and everyone just slipped the cash into his passport to ensure swift and orderly passage through customs. Once, he said, a Dutch colleague refused on principle to pay the bribe, and the customs officials simply sighed and looked through his luggage to find something on which to levy a fictional tax. The inspector found a CD player in the Dutchman’s bag and demanded $50 for an import license. The Dutchman took the CD player, said “Fifty dollars?” and smashed the device to smithereens on the airport floor. The official, duly impressed at the man’s resolve, let him through without a bribe.

It is unlikely, though, that I would have an easier time than in Somalia. There, the problem is not a corrupt government so much as the complete absence of one. Daallo Airlines flies to Mogadishu, and fills a couple of its seats with mechanics, just in case, since if the plane breaks down and is stranded in Mogadishu without security, the crew would be lucky to escape having only been robbed and not kidnapped. On the other hand, customs is a breeze when there is no customs, although getting a taxi is something of a hassle when every taxi driver is ripped out of his mind on qat, and the ones who are armed are certain to rob the ones who aren’t.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, I was advised that airport authorities would search thoroughly for drugs and weapons, and that they would let me slip through illegally with the latter, unloaded and in checked luggage, for a small fee, or with the former (even more illegally) for a large one. Sure enough, they X-rayed my bags and picked apart every bit of them that came back opaque (only flatbread, not blacktar heroin).

But the new security restrictions and pat-downs must seem more oppressive to Yemenis than to anyone else. Yemeni men all wear daggers called jambia tucked into their belts, and on trip from Sayun, in the Hadramaut region, to the capital Sanaa I underwent what must have been the most comically theatrical trips through airport security I have ever endured. The airline permitted daggers but no firearms, and the scanning equipment was non-existent, so airport personnel patted everyone down but let everyone keep their big daggers. Of course, no one was going to be able to use a dagger to hijack a plane filled with 30 other men who also have daggers, so in a sense the system worked.

Did it work in the other direction? I sheathed my usual identity papers in the Yemeni passport cover and walked up to present my ticket and credentials to the TSA guy at the entrance to Reagan’s so-called “sterile” area. I passed the passport to the screener with the words “REPUBLIC OF YEMEN” — in English and in Arabic calligraphy — facing toward him, and the cover opening exotically right-to-left, due to the Arabic script. The reaction was predictable: a droopy-lidded glance, but no pop-eyed realization that he had potential crotchbomber standing in front of him. He squiggled on my boarding pass and let me through.

So there was no special screening whatsoever. At the gate, however, they did swab the bag of the woman in line ahead of me to test it for explosive residue. She, you will be comforted to know, was carrying a Norwegian passport.