Yemen terror alert: Obama says explosives found

Barack Obama: "Counter-terrorism professionals are taking this threat very seriously"

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President Barack Obama has said initial examinations of two suspicious packages bound for the US show they appeared to have contained explosive materials.

He said the packages, found in the UK and Dubai on two overnight cargo planes from Yemen, were destined for Jewish places of worship in Chicago.

Security alerts are under way in the US, UK and Middle East.

The White House later said Saudi Arabia had provided information that helped identify the threat.

The two packages found in Britain's East Midlands airport and in Dubai have now been made inert, US officials say.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May later said that the device found in Britain "did contain explosive material".

"But it is not yet clear that it was a viable explosive device. The forensic work continues," she added.

The security alert saw two other cargo planes owned by the freight company UPS searched in Newark and Philadelphia.

UPS said it had suspended its shipments out of Yemen.

Another suspect package from Yemen was examined on a delivery lorry in New York, and later declared safe.

In other developments:

  • New aviation security measures are being taken in light of the alert, the US Homeland Security Department announces
  • The US says that if a terror link is confirmed, the main suspects will be al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen - al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  • US fighter jets escorted Emirates flight 201 from Dubai into New York, with officials saying the action was being taken "out of an abundance of caution" because cargo from Yemen was on board
  • Cobra, the UK government's emergency planning committee, met on Friday and was to meet again on Saturday as discussions continue about how to tighten UK security further
Saudis thanked

Mr Obama said the discovery represented a credible terrorist threat against the US.

Analysis

Yemen has risen rapidly towards the top of the list of countries of concern for Western counter-terrorism officials in the past year. The group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - which has found a sanctuary in Yemen's ungoverned spaces - has shown increasing ambition and sophistication in its attempts to target the United States and others.

But while the origin of this plot seems clear, its exact form does not. The presence of explosives in the devices suggests this was no dry run or simply an attempt to cause panic through a hoax.

But forensic experts in the UK have been continuing to study the substances found in the parts for a printer to try to understand exactly what they were and how they were to be used. There appears to be a strong conviction these were parts for a bomb but whether they were complete and how they were to be detonated and against which target remains uncertain.

"Although we are still pursuing all the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen," he told a White House press conference.

"We also know that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - a terrorist group based in Yemen - continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens and our friends and allies."

Mr Obama said he was first informed about the packages late on Thursday and that President Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen had pledged his country's full support in investigating the threat.

However, the Yemeni government later expressed astonishment at reports linking the country to the two packages, according to the Associated Press news agency.

It quoted a Yemeni statement as saying that no UPS cargo planes had taken off from Yemen and there had been no direct or indirect flights to British or US airports.

Mr Obama said the US would continue to work to destroy al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.

US Homeland Security adviser John Brennan thanked the Saudi Arabians for their help.

"Their assistance, along with the hard work of the US counter-terrorism community, the United Kingdom, the UAE, and other friends and partners helped make it possible to increase our vigilance and identify the suspicious packages," he said.

Al-Qaeda and Jewish targets

  • April 2002: Suicide bombing at synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia kills 19. Al-Qaeda claims the attack
  • Nov 2002: 16 people killed in suicide bombing al-Qaeda claims to have carried out of Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya
  • May 2003: 45 killed in bomb attacks in Casablanca, Morocco, on targets including Jewish cultural centre. Group linked to al-Qaeda blamed.
  • Nov 2003: Two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, bombed, killing 23. Al-Qaeda claims responsibility
  • Oct 2005: Germany sentences four Arab men accused of links to al-Qaeda of planning attacks on Jewish targets

A spokeswoman for the Jewish Federation in Chicago said the community had been warned to be on the alert in the wake of the discoveries.

"We were notified this morning that synagogues should be on the alert," the spokeswoman, Linda Haase, told Reuters news agency. "We are taking appropriate precautions and are advising local synagogues to do likewise."

The suspicious package in the UK was reportedly an ink toner cartridge that had been modified.

US officials told Associated Press they believed the Dubai and East Midlands packages contained the same explosive used in the failed bombing of a US-bound airliner last Christmas Day.

It quoted the officials as saying that full testing had not been completed but initial indications were that the packages contained PETN, a chemical that was also a component of shoe bomber Richard Reid's explosive in 2001.

The cargo planes in the US were taken to remote locations to be searched.

"Out of an abundance of caution the planes were moved to a remote location where they are being met by law enforcement officials," said the Transportation Security Administration.

Emergency services were called to the UK airport in Donington, Leicestershire, overnight and evacuated a distribution centre, while the suspicious package was examined.

US security services remain on a high level of vigilance in the wake of the attempted Times Square bombing in May and the alleged attempted Christmas Day attack.

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