WASHINGTON - Two packages containing explosives sent from Yemen and addressed to Chicago-area Jewish institutions were found Friday aboard U.S.-bound aircraft in Britain and Dubai following a tipoff to U.S. authorities, apparently from Saudi Arabia.
A Yemen-based al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, topped the U.S. government’s list of suspects.
While U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials have long tracked the AQAP threat, the group shot to prominence last Christmas after a failed bombing of a U.S. passenger jet over Detroit by a Nigerian wearing explosives-laden underwear.
President Barack Obama, who was first informed of the packages on Thursday night, told a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon that officials were trying to determine a connection, if any, between the packages and broader plots by AQAP or other groups.
The packages represented a “credible terrorist threat,” Obama said. Their discovery four days before critical midterm congressional elections underscores “the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism,” he said.
Initial examinations had determined that the two packages “apparently contain explosive material,” Obama said.
One package was sent by way of United Parcel Service and the other by way of FedEx, said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. UPS announced that it was suspending service from Yemen until further notice; FedEx said that it was embargoing all shipments from the country.
One of the packages was destined for a synagogue, the other for a Jewish community center, the official said.
The package discovered aboard a UPS cargo jet at East Midlands Airport, north of London, contained a copier toner cartridge rigged with explosives and wiring, the U.S. official said.
The second package was found aboard a FedEx cargo jet at the FedEx terminal at the international airport in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, the U.S. official said. The official was unable to confirm that the second package also contained an explosive-rigged toner cartridge.
The searches were launched after U.S. authorities “got a tip from a foreign government, a foreign partner, on the two packages,” said the U.S. official.
The U.S. official added that searches of another aircraft in Newark, N.J., and two jets in Philadelphia were ordered as a “precautionary measure” because they were known to be carrying cargo from Yemen.
Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is grappling with an insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. U.S. officials worry the two conflicts are distracting Yemen’s government from dealing effectively with AQAP.
John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism official, indicated in a statement Friday evening that the tipoff came from Saudi Arabia.
“The United States is grateful to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen,” he said. “Their assistance, along with the hard work of the U.S. counter-terrorism community, the United Kingdom, the UAE, and other friends and partners helped make it possible to increase our vigilance and identify the suspicious packages in Dubai and East Midlands Airport.”
U.S. officials declined to provide more details of the packages, including whether they contained triggering devices, the potential power of the explosives or the intended targets.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said on CNN that she had been told by the head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, that one bomb was to be triggered by a cell phone and the other by a timer.
Authorities were working to determine if the packages were intended to detonate or serve as a “dry run” – or test – of security measures at U.S. cargo-handling facilities, Brennan said.
However, he added, a “traditional dry run” wouldn’t include explosive materials.
U.S. intelligence officials warned last month that terrorists hoped to mail chemical and biological materials as part of an attack on America and other Western nations. The alert came in a Sept. 23 bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security that was obtained by The Associated Press.
Steven Sheinberg, who directs the Jewish communal security program at the Anti-Defamation League, said law enforcement officials informed the group about the packages earlier Friday.
The ADL sent out a national security alert, advising Jewish institutions to ramp up their mailroom security, especially to be alert for any packages from Great Britain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
Obama, who read his statement before heading to a campaign event in Virginia, said he has instructed law enforcement officials to take “whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack.”
The Department of Homeland Security said that “as a precaution” it had “taken a number of steps to enhance security. Some of these security measures will be visible, while others will not. The public may recognize specific enhancements, including heightened cargo screening and additional security at airports.”