Obama calls Yemeni packages 'credible terrorist threat'
US law enforcement officials searched for suspicious packages aboard planes Saturday as President Barack Obama said that two parcels from Yemen apparently 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's East Midlands airport -- sparked an international security alert.
The White House said it was tipped off by Saudi Arabia to the threat and said Washington was "grateful ... for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen."
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.
US and Canadian fighter jets were scrambled to accompany an Emirates plane into New York but Emirati authorities later said it was not carrying cargo from Yemen.
"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.
Top officials reassured the public that the threat level to the United States was unchanged, although the Department of Homeland Security announced it had boosted security measures.
The president made it clear he suspected Al-Qaeda's Yemeni-based affiliate of being behind the plot, which could have serious 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 with international partners, including the United States.
"It does appear there were explosive materials in both of the packages" addressed to synagogues in Chicago, 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."
US media reported that the packages, which held a wire-rigged ink toner cartridge and suspicious powder, may have contained the explosive PETN, the same substance used by would-be 2009 Christmas day bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2001 attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.
British authorities were probing whether the package contained a "viable" bomb, Home Secretary Theresa May said Saturday.
"At this stage I can say that the device did contain explosive material but it is not yet clear that it was a viable explosive device. The forensic work continues," May said.
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.
However, synagogues in Chicago planned to hold regular services on Saturday.
"It's obviously disturbing," Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, told The New York Times. "But certainly the Jewish community will proceed as it proceeds. We'll just exercise caution."
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.
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 has been linked to high-profile terror plots in the United States.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism in Washington, said that if Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is behind the plot, it may have chosen Chicago as a target because it is the hometown of the US president.
"They may be trying to send a message to Obama that they can attack his backyard as well," said Segal.
© 2010 AFP