U.S. officials are investigating packages sent from Yemen to the U.S. after suspicious parcels were found in the U.K. and Dubai, raising concern that the incident was a dry run for a future terrorist attack.
United Parcel Service Inc. said the Federal Bureau of Investigation checked packages today on three jets from Europe, while FedEx Corp. said it embargoed shipments from Yemen after a parcel from the country was seized by officials at its Dubai facility. President Barack Obama was notified late yesterday about a “potential terrorist threat,” the White House said.
“Authorities were able to identify and examine two suspicious packages, one in East Midlands, United Kingdom, and one in Dubai,” the White House said in a statement. “Both of these packages originated from Yemen.”
Investigators are looking at whether the shipments were staged as rehearsals for a future attack, a U.S. official said. Links to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of the group that operates in Yemen, also are being studied, said the official, who requested anonymity.
Obama will make a statement about the case at 4:15 p.m. Washington time, the White House said.
Tests for explosives were negative on a toner cartridge found on the plane that landed in the U.K. en route to Chicago from Yemen, said Richard Kolko, a spokesman for the FBI in New York, in a telephone interview. He didn’t specify the carrier involved.
Wires, White Powder
Wires protruded from the toner unit, and a white powder was found along with it, according to the U.S. official who asked not to be identified. U.K. authorities alerted the U.S. to check for packages from same Yemeni shipper, according to a different person familiar with the inquiry.
Checks for explosives are required for all 4.2 billion pounds of freight shipped on passenger planes annually within the U.S., plus goods on flights headed for international destinations, under a U.S. rule that took effect in August.
UPS, the world’s package-delivery company, screens shipments that will be carried on passenger jets, although it doesn’t have to screen cargo on its own planes, according to the Atlanta-based company’s website.
Dry Run or Mischief?
“It looks either like a dry run or an act of mischief,” Richard Falkenrath, a principal at Chertoff Group and former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “But there is a significant vulnerability that someone may be probing, and that is cargo aircraft entering U.S. airspace.”
The discoveries in Dubai and the U.K. set off a day of law enforcement investigations stretching from the Persian Gulf region to the U.S., and alerts to Chicago-area synagogues from a Jewish community group that said it was advised by federal authorities to take precautions.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was boosting security at airports, including more-thorough screening of cargo.
“Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams and pat downs,” the agency said in a statement.
Yemen and Terror
Yemen figured into the U.S. inquiry of the last major security threat on a U.S. jetliner, the attempted bombing of a Delta Air Lines Inc. plane on Dec. 25. Obama told reporters in January that evidence indicates that the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was trained and equipped by a Yemeni group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Maury Lane, a spokesman for Memphis, Tennessee-based FedEx, said he didn’t have additional information about the shipper or contents of the package in Dubai. The government media office in Dubai declined to comment.
A person at UPS’s office in Sana‘a, the Yemeni capital, said the manager was unavailable, refused to comment further and declined to give his name, saying he wasn’t authorized to comment.
All three UPS planes landed safely in the U.S., with two in Philadelphia and one in Newark, New Jersey, a spokesman, Mike Mangeot, said in a telephone interview. The Newark jet was later cleared for another flight, he said. The search turned up nothing suspicious, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mangeot said the FBI and Transportation Security Administration haven’t given UPS further details about the nature of the packages or what is under investigation. He said he wasn’t aware of any visible signs of smoke or fire from the packages or on the company’s planes.
A Boeing Co. 767 from Paris and an MD-11 from Cologne, Germany, landed in Philadelphia, and a 767 flew to Newark from East Midlands, Mangeot said. He said the Newark jet was now on another flight, to Louisville, Kentucky.
A UPS truck that had been stopped in Brooklyn for a suspected explosive device was cleared following an investigation, said Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York City Police Department, in an e-mail.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, a not-for- profit charity group, was advising local synagogues to take “appropriate precautions” today after being notified by authorities to be on alert, said Linda Haase, a spokeswoman for the group, in a telephone interview.
The U.S. got a tip from one its allies about packages coming from Yemen destined for synagogues in Chicago, CNN reported, citing an unidentified person in law enforcement.
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