WASHINGTON – Intelligence officials are concerned about a new al-Qaida effort to create a bomb that would go undetected through airport security, according to a counterterrorism official, prompting the U.S. to call for tighter security measures Wednesday at some foreign airports.
The counterterrorism official declined to describe the kind of information that triggered the warning. But officials in the past have raised concerns about nonmetallic explosives being surgically implanted inside a traveler’s body, designed to be undetectable in pat-downs or metal detectors.
The U.S. has been planning for additional measures for the past month, a counterterrorism official said Wednesday, adding there was no immediate threat that led to the announcement by the Homeland Security Department that it was requesting tighter security abroad.
American intelligence has picked up indications that bomb makers from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate have traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there. The groups are working to perfect an explosive device that could foil airport security, the counterterrorism official said.
Americans and others from the West have traveled to Syria over the past year to join al Nusra Front’s fight against the Syrian government. The fear is that fighters with a U.S. or Western passport – and therefore subject to less stringent security screening – could carry such a bomb onto an American plane.
Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, long has been fixated on bringing down airplanes with hidden explosives. It was behind failed and thwarted plots involving suicide bombers with explosives designed to hide inside underwear and explosives hidden inside printer cartridges shipped on cargo planes.
It wasn’t clear which airports were affected by the extra security measures, but industry data show that more than 250 foreign airports offer nonstop service to the U.S., including Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai International Airport.
The call for increased security was not connected to Iraq or the recent violence there, said a second U.S. counterterrorism official. Another U.S. official said the increased security measures had nothing to do with the upcoming July Fourth holiday or any specific threat.
The extra security is out of an “abundance of caution,” the U.S. official said.
The U.S. shared “recent and relevant” information with foreign allies, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. “Aviation security includes a number of measures, both seen and unseen, informed by an evolving environment.”
Meanwhile, the State Department has instructed U.S. Embassy employees in Algeria to avoid U.S.-owned or -operated hotels through July 4 and the Algerian Independence Day on Saturday.
“As of June 2014 an unspecified terrorist group may have been considering attacks in Algiers, possibly in the vicinity of a U.S.-branded hotel,” according to the message from the U.S. Embassy in Algeria.
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