WASHINGTON – A terrorist attack apparently aimed at two Jewish centers in Chicago was thwarted when two packages the size of “bread boxes” containing explosives were intercepted in Europe and the Middle East, President Barack Obama and counterterrorism officials announced Friday.
The packages were located on cargo planes after a tip from an official in Saudi Arabia and were en route to the United States from Yemen. The targets were a synagogue and another Jewish center on the north side of Chicago, according to a U.S. official.
As they launched a terrorism investigation on three continents, authorities said suspicion fell in particular on al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, which has been linked to an attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner last Christmas Day. The explosive material in the packages is the same material present in the Christmas Day attempt, according to a U.S. official.
Through an intelligence tip, authorities discovered the packages late Thursday in UPS cargo planes that had flown from Yemen to an airport in East Midlands, England, and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
An initial examination of the packages found that “they do apparently contain explosive materials,” Obama said in an announcement from the White House Friday afternoon.
Officials said it was still uncertain whether the devices were operational, or whether they were to be picked up by someone in Chicago. One said federal law enforcement is theorizing that “someone else” in Chicago would have had to pick up the package and activate it.
The events “underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism,” the president said. He warned that authorities believe al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group, “continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens and our friends and allies.”
A federal law enforcement official said the cargo packages resemble the kind of smaller but deadly attacks recently urged by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born terrorist leader. Al-Awlaki encouraged Maj. Nidal Hasan in e-mails before he allegedly killed 13 fellow soldiers last November at Fort Hood in Texas, and also was behind the so-called underwear bombing attempt last Christmas in Detroit allegedly by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
“He is pushing the less sensational,” the official said, asking not to be identified because the investigation is continuing. “There appears to be a good amount of debate within al-Qaida, and al-Awlaki is pushing for more hits but on a smaller scale. He also believes that even when attacks are scrubbed or foiled, they nonetheless are successful if it terrorizes the United States.”
Federal authorities searched cargo planes at airports along the Eastern Seaboard on Friday as well as a delivery truck in Brooklyn, but found no explosives.
An Emirates Airlines passenger jet carrying cargo from Yemen was escorted from the Canadian border to New York City by two military jets, in what U.S. officials described as a precautionary measure. A package onboard the passenger plane appeared similar to the packages found in England and Dubai, officials said, but ultimately was found not to contain explosives.
John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said the explosives “were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of attack.”
A federal law enforcement official said initial reviews of the two suspicious cargo packages show that the one found in England apparently was a printer or ink toner cartridge and contained “some kind of white powder” and syringes and wires. He said the second package uncovered in Dubai apparently contained cell phone components and a timer. He cautioned that both packages are still being evaluated and no firm conclusions have been made.
Obama said that Brennan had spoken with the president of Yemen, who had pledged full cooperation in the terrorism investigation.
According to officials, the White House called a 1 a.m. meeting Friday morning to evaluate the cargo package intelligence, which included video participation with Homeland Security officials. They said the White House decided it was “good enough intelligence” to alert U.S. allies in Europe to start checking cargo packages coming from Yemen and bound for the U.S.
At 3 a.m., they said, the U.S. “ordered” every single package from Yemen headed for the U.S. to be pulled off of planes and inspected.
Homeland Security officials took a series of steps to enhance security, including heightened cargo screening and additional security at U.S. 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,” DHS officials said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago said it had advised local synagogues to be on alert.
The two incidents highlight a known vulnerability in the air cargo industry, one that has been the subject of extensive discussion between the Transportation Security Administration and the industry for several years.
The federal government has mandated in recent years that 100 percent of all cargo on passenger aircraft be screened, a goal that was achieved only this August. But the issue of cargo carried aboard cargo-only aircraft has been far more difficult to resolve. As far back as March 2009, the industry warned Congress it would not be able to meet the August deadline that 100 percent of cargo would be screened.