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.
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The packages represented a "credible terrorist threat," Obama said. Their discoveries four days before critical mid-term congressional elections "underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism," he added.
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 to 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 issued 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."
Brennan said officials were still "trying to understand who is behind it, responsibility and make sure that we understand the scope of the threat that we might face."
"Anybody who's associated with AQAP is considered a subject of concern," he added, including Anwar al Awlaki, a radical former Islamic cleric who holds U.S. and Yemeni citizenship and who's thought to be based in Yemen.
Awlaki, 39, who was born in New Mexico, is suspected of overseeing earlier terrorist plots, including last year's failed Christmas Day airline bombing. Awlaki has been targeted for assassination by the Obama administration.
U.S. officials declined to provide more details of the packages, including whether they contained triggering devices, the potential power of the explosives they 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 organization 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 and to contact authorities if they see anything suspicious, he said.
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."
"Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams and pat-downs, among others," said a DHS statement.
The U.S. government didn't immediately change the terror threat level, which stayed at yellow — or elevated — for the country and at orange — high — for domestic and international flights. U.S. officials, however, were considering whether to add additional security measures at Jewish institutions.
Christopher Boucek, an expert on Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that confirmation of AQAP's involvement with the packages would underscore its ambitions to operate at an international level.
"AQAP says what it wants to do and then it does it and then it tries again," he said. "Christmas they tried to bring down an airliner, so it's not a surprise they would try again to target the domestic United States. Clearly this year they tried to assassinate the British ambassador to Yemen. A few weeks ago they targeted a British convoy with rockets."
"They have a very steep, fast learning curve," he continued. "They learn from their mistakes. I'd make the argument that AQAP is a much more agile and lethal organization than big al Qaida hiding out" in Pakistan.
The Obama administration planned to increase counterterrorism assistance to Yemen this year to $63 million, three times the amount provided in 2008.
"The deteriorating security situation in Yemen of which AQAP is a part of is an increasing problem and it more and more a threat to American domestic security," said Boucek. "There's a limit to what the United States can do in Yemen to improve security."
Brennan said there was "no indication whatsoever" that the packages were linked to the arrest this week of a Pakistani-born Virginia man for allegedly planning an attack on Washington subway stations.
Brennan was asked to compare the response to the latest threat to the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian with reported ties to al Awlaki who's charged in the failed Christmas Day airliner attack. Obama and a later Senate investigation criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for allowing warnings about Abdulmutullab to slip through the cracks.
In this case, Brennan said, "The (intelligence and law enforcement) community kicked into gear right away and took those steps so that we would find out where those packages were and take the appropriate steps with TSA (Transportation Security Administration), FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and others. And the system worked very, very well."
(Renee Schoof and Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.)
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