Obama calls Yemeni packages 'credible terrorist threat'
US President Barack Obama said Friday that two packages from Yemen addressed to Jewish synagogues in Chicago contained explosive material and were a "credible terrorist threat."
The discovery of the suspicious packages overnight on cargo planes in transit for the United States -- one in Dubai and the other in Britain -- sparked an international security alert.
Informed late Thursday, Obama immediately ordered cargo planes at Philadelphia and Newark international airports to be towed to isolation and checked because they were thought to contain further packages from Yemen.
The Pentagon later scrambled fighter jets to intercept a passenger plane, reportedly Emirates Airlines flight 201, which was escorted in to land at New York's John F. Kennedy airport because it had another suspect package.
"We will continue to pursue additional protective measures as long as it takes to ensure the safety and security of our citizens," Obama told a special press conference at the White House.
The president made it clear he suspected Al-Qaeda's Yemeni-based affiliate of being behind the plot, which could have severe ramifications for the global cargo industry.
"Although we are still pursuing all of the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen," Obama said.
"We know that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies."
Yemeni officials said their government had launched a full investigation and was working closely on the incident with international partners, including the United States.
"It does appear there were explosive materials in both of the packages," Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan told reporters.
"They were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of an attack. The initial analysis (is) that the materials that were found and the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm."
Television pictures of the package found at East Midlands airport in Britain appeared to show an ink toner cartridge, a small circuit board and attached wires, but officials were staying quiet on the exact contents.
It was not known what was in the FedEx package found in Dubai but the US delivery giant said subsequently, along with rival UPS, that it was suspending all deliveries from Yemen.
Brennan said all packages originating from Yemen would now be "carefully screened.
In the hours following the discovery of the packages, the US authorities gave advance warning to Jewish leaders in Chicago of a threat against synagogues in the city.
"We were told that synagogues should be on the alert," Linda Hasse, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told AFP. "We are taking appropriate precautions and advising local synagogues to do likewise."
Later, as the Department of Homeland Security announced tighter security around the United States, three cargo planes in Philadelphia and Newark were towed away to be checked.
The cargo scare offered a new twist as Western authorities have usually focused on dangers posed to passenger airliners following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Al-Qaeda hijacked planes and struck targets in New York and Washington.
Fran Townsend, who was homeland security advisor to former president George W. Bush, told CNN the security scare followed growing intelligence concerns.
"There had been a rising concern about packages and cargo being used to launch an attack," she said.
"The US intelligence community has been focused on that. You add to that in the last 24 hours a tip from a very credible US ally who provided some, I'm told, very specific information about packages coming out of Yemen."
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, faces a growing threat from the local branch of his global jihadist network.
Over the past decade, it has become a haven for violent extremists, becoming the headquarters of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the hiding place for US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was linked to high-profile terror plots in the United States.
© 2010 AFP