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 Obama and counterterrorism officials announced Friday.
The packages, which had originated from Yemen, were found on cargo planes after a tip from an official in Saudi Arabia. The targets were a synagogue and another Jewish center on the North Side of Chicago, a U.S. official said.
As they launched a terrorism investigation on three continents, authorities said suspicion fell in particular on Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which has been linked to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. The explosive material found in the two packages is the same as that used in the failed airliner attack, according to a U.S. official.
Authorities discovered the packages late Thursday in UPS cargo planes that had flown from Yemen to an airport in East Midlands, England; and Dubai, 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 on Friday afternoon. Officials said it was still uncertain whether the devices were operational or whether they were to be picked up and activated by someone in Chicago. One official said federal law enforcement authorities believe the latter scenario to be the most likely.
The events “underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism,” the president said. He warned that authorities believe Al Qaeda 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 resembled the kind of smaller but deadly attacks recently urged by Anwar Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric thought to be living in Yemen. Awlaki sent e-mail to U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan encouraging him to militant activity before the November attacks at Ft. Hood, Texas, in which Hasan is suspected of killing 13 fellow soldiers. The cleric is also suspected of being behind the Christmas Day airliner plot allegedly carried out by Nigerian 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 Qaeda, 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, N.Y., but found no explosives.
An Emirates Airline 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 aboard the passenger plane appeared similar to those found in England and Dubai, officials said, but was found not be contain explosives.
John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, 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 showed that the one found in England apparently contained a printer or ink toner cartridge with “some kind of white powder” and syringes and wires. He said the package uncovered in Dubai apparently contained cellphone components and a timer. He cautioned that both were still being evaluated and that no firm conclusions had been made.
Obama said that Brennan had spoken with the president of Yemen, who had pledged full cooperation in the investigation.
According to officials, the White House called a 1 a.m. meeting Friday 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 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 package from Yemen headed for the U.S. to be pulled off planes and inspected.
Homeland Security officials took a series of steps to enhance security, including heightened cargo screening and additional safety measures 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,” Homeland Security officials said.
A Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago spokeswoman said the group was “taking appropriate precautions” and was “advising our local synagogues to do likewise.” One of the targets was a Jewish congregation that meets at a Unitarian church, according to a U.S. official.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism in Washington, said Rahm Emanuel has been the focus of some attention on extremist blogs since long before he resigned as White House chief of staff to run for Chicago mayor. Segal said that vitriol on message boards peaked when Obama named Emanuel his top aide in early 2009.
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 all cargo on passenger aircraft be screened, a goal that was achieved only this August. But the issue of parcels 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% of cargo would be screened.
A TSA official acknowledged Friday that not all cargo inbound from abroad is screened and that the cargo that does get screened is handled differently than passenger luggage, which is subject to X-ray. That means that the two suspicious packages may not have been subject to screening when they were originally loaded in Yemen.
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.