U.S. Hunts for More Suspicious PackagesBy SCOTT SHANE
New York Times
October 30, 2010
WASHINGTON — Officials searched for suspicious packages in the United States and other countries after two shipments containing explosives, sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago, were intercepted in Britain and Dubai.
The discovery of the explosives packed in toner cartridges for computer printers, based on a tip from Saudi intelligence officials, set off a broad terrorism scare on Friday that included the scrambling of fighter jets to accompany a passenger flight as it landed safely in New York.
Cargo planes were moved to secure areas of airports in Philadelphia and Newark for searches, and a United Parcel Service truck in Brooklyn was stopped and inspected. No additional explosives had been discovered by early Saturday morning.
Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said Friday that the packages seized in Britain and Dubai contained PETN, the same chemical explosive contained in the bomb sewn into the underwear of the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit last Dec. 25. That plot, too, was hatched in Yemen, a country that is regarded as one of the most significant fronts in the battle with extremists.
Ms. Harman, who was briefed by John S. Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said that both packages contained computer printer cartridges filled with the explosive, but that one used a cellphone as a detonator and the other had a timer.
In a brief statement to reporters at the White House on Friday afternoon, President Obama, who had been briefed on developments starting at 10:35 p.m. on Thursday, said the explosives represented a “credible terrorist threat” to the United States.
“The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism,” Mr. Obama said. He praised the work of intelligence and counterterrorism officials in foiling the plot.
“The American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms,” the president said.
News of the terrorist plot came as Mr. Obama was barreling into the last four days of campaigning before midterm elections on Tuesday, and White House officials appeared determined to project the appearance of a commander in chief who was on top of the developments.
Intelligence officials in Saudi Arabia tipped off the United States to the plot to ship explosives from Sana, the Yemeni capital, American officials said. Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, closely monitors militants there, who have plotted against the Saudi monarchy and sent a suicide bomber last year in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Saudi counterterrorism chief.
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, whose office was briefed on the episode, said the tip about the explosives was precise. “We knew what we were looking for, and we knew where to look,” he said.
Mr. King, who has often been a critic of the administration and intelligence agencies that have at times missed warning signs of attacks, said, “So far everything has worked the right way.”
John O. Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, said that the packages containing explosives, which he compared in size to a “breadbox,” were undergoing forensic analysis and that the inquiry was at an early stage. He said investigators did not yet know how the explosives were intended to be activated.
He said the search for additional explosives was continuing. “We don’t want to presume we know the bounds of this plot, so we are looking at all packages,” Mr. Brennan said.
The latest plot underscored once again the threat from Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch of the terrorism network based there. Mr. Brennan called it “the most active operational franchise of Al Qaeda.”
Indeed, Yemen, once little known to most Americans, has been the source of some of the most dramatic terrorism attempts of recent years. American intelligence officials have said that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric now hiding in Yemen, played a direct role in the Christmas Day airliner plot, and he has publicly called for more attacks on the United States.
In addition, an Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki beforehand. Mr. Awlaki’s lectures and sermons have been linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.
Yemeni raids and American missile strikes have repeatedly targeted Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since December, and early this year Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen to be placed on the Central Intelligence Agency’s list of suspected terrorists to be captured or killed. So far no evidence has been made public linking Mr. Awlaki to the latest plot.
A spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, Mohammed Albasha, said Yemen’s government “launched a full-scale investigation” and was working closely with the United States and other countries to assess the episode.
Mr. Brennan, who spoke early Friday with the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said Yemen’s cooperation in the fight against terrorism had steadily improved.
“We’re working very closely with them, and we have found that they are courageous partners,” he said.
Mr. Brennan also praised the Saudis, saying, “Their quick action was responsible for preventing what might have been major terrorist attacks with significant loss of life.”
The plot unfolded in dramatic fashion on international television, with scenes of security teams surrounding cargo planes in several countries, military fighters accompanying a passenger plane into New York and a grim-faced president and his aides, many of whom had spent a sleepless night.
One of the packages was found aboard a U.P.S. cargo plane at East Midlands Airport near Nottingham, England, officials said. A second, similar package was removed from a FedEx flight in Dubai, they said.
Neither company has flights into or out of Yemen, but they offer shipping from Yemen and contract with other companies to move freight from there to hubs in Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The episode is likely to reignite a long-running debate over the screening of freight aboard cargo planes. Only a small percentage of such freight is currently screened, though in 2007 Congress directed the Transportation Security Administration to screen all cargo carried on passenger flights starting this year.
Administration officials said they had no reason to believe the Chicago addresses were connected to Mr. Obama’s plans to be in Chicago on Saturday night. They said the decision to have the president speak publicly about the plot was made partly because of confusing and contradictory reports on television on Friday.
After a suspicious package was reported to be aboard a flight from the United Arab Emirates to New York, Canadian and American fighters were scrambled to accompany it. The flight landed in New York City on Friday afternoon without incident, and no explosives were found.
David Packles, 23, a financial analyst from New York who was aboard the plane, Emirates Flight 201 from Dubai, said he did not spot any military aircraft or notice any unusual security precautions, except for a 20-minute delay before passengers were permitted to leave the plane.
“To think there were fighter jets escorting the plane really, really blows my mind right now,” he said.
Two U.P.S. cargo planes at the Philadelphia airport and another in Newark were moved to safe areas away from terminals and searched before being cleared. A U.P.S. truck in New York City was stopped and searched as well, and two items from Yemen were inspected, the police said.
Counterterrorism officials declined to identify the synagogues to which the suspicious packages found in Dubai and Britain were addressed; they did say they did not include KAM Isaiah Israel, which is across the street from Mr. Obama’s Hyde Park home.
Synagogues in Chicago planned to hold regular services on Saturday, said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. “It’s obviously disturbing,” he said of the news that Chicago might have been the focus of a plot, “but certainly the Jewish community will proceed as it proceeds. We’ll just exercise caution.”
Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Eric Lipton, Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti, Matthew L. Wald, Thom Shanker and Michael D. Shear from Washington; Al Baker, Mick Meenan and Liz Robbins from New York; and Emma Graves Fitzsimmons from Chicago.