U.S., allies thwart terror plot using cargo planesBy ANTHONY M. DESTEFANO
October 30, 2010
U.S. and foreign intelligence organizations blunted another terror plot aimed at the United States by intercepting overseas two explosive devices apparently destined for two Chicago-area Jewish organizations.
The devices had been sent from Yemen, prompting an international alert Friday that led officials in several cities to inspect planes carrying packages from the Middle Eastern country. In New York City, at least two planes landing at Kennedy Airport were inspected because they were carrying containers from Yemen.
The use of commercial packages underscored for many experts the continuing vulnerability of the air cargo system to exploitation by terrorists.
"The inside of an aircraft is safe but the loose area is cargo," said New York security consultant Robert Strang. "Certainly it [cargo] is a soft area."
The two explosive devices were shipped from Yemen, a country known as a hotbed of al-Qaida sympathy, President Barack Obama told the nation in a brief television appearance after the counterterrorism operation appeared to have neutralized any immediate threat.
Al-Qaida Yemen branch blamed
U.S. officials said they were increasingly confident that al-Qaida's Yemen branch was responsible for the shipments. "Al-Qaida continues to plan attacks against our homeland, citizens and allies," Obama said.
Authorities didn't name the Chicago-area places of worship to which the packages were addressed.
"This is the real thing," said Rep. Peter King of Seaford, the ranking House Republican on the homeland security committee, as events started to unfold in the United States, Europe and Mideast.
Late Friday, the NYPD said "enhanced security" would be added for city synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods, but that no specific threat had been received, police spokesman Paul Browne said. The federal Department of Homeland Security said Friday it would heighten cargo security screening measures and impose additional security at airports. "Some of these measures will be visible, others while others will not," said the DHS in a statement.
Officials were guarded in describing Friday exactly how they learned of the latest plot. But in a briefing with reporters in New York, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly said that intelligence came out of Yemen that suspicious packages were en route to the United States and Britain aboard UPS and FedEx cargo planes, as well as other commercial aircraft.
As a result, packages were tracked and individual explosive devices were found in shipments on separate cargo planes in Dubai and near London, law enforcement officials said.
U.S. 'grateful' for Saudi help
National security adviser Robert Brennan, in a statement, said the U.S. was "grateful to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen."
British officials initially said a package they found was not an explosive device. But a U.S. law enforcement official who didn't want to be named said the package, described as a printer ink cartridge containing loose wires and white powder, was explosive, which Obama confirmed. U.S. officials told The Washington Post that they were investigating if the explosive substance was PETN, the chemical used in the failed Christmas 2009 airline attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as well as shoe bomber Richard Reid's effort to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001. Brennan said the explosives "were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of attack" but gave no further details.
Attempting to locate any other suspicious packages from Yemen, U.S. authorities also searched planes at airports in Newark and Philadelphia and a delivery truck in Brooklyn, but found no explosives.
Emirates Flight 201 destined for Kennedy Airport from Dubai was escorted by fighter jets because of concern about a package on board. The jets broke off the escort at high altitude, a government official said, and nothing suspicious was found on the plane.
Friday night, investigators were searching British Airways Flight 115, which took off from London's Heathrow Airport, saying it contained a "suspicious package" from Yemen, an aviation source said. The plane landed about 7:40 p.m. and was taken to a remote area of the airport where passengers were taken off the Boeing 777.
Earlier, the NYPD tracked a package to a UPS truck traveling to Brooklyn. The bomb squad at first tried to intercept the truck in Queens but instead met the vehicle at 4 MetroTech Center, a business and educational development in downtown Brooklyn, where it was supposed to deliver the package to JP Morgan Chase, Kelly said.
Two packages were X-rayed and examined by the NYPD, but were found to contain only bank receipts and paperwork, said police officials.