by editor | 30th October 2010 7:38 am
Vikram Dodd, Dan Milmo and Chris McGreal in Washington
• Terror alert as explosive packages found on US-bound planes
• Suspicious package on cargo plane at East Midlands airport
• Another package found on FedEx plane at Dubai airport
Security services yesterday thwarted a terrorist attempt to send packages containing explosive material hidden in printer ink cartridges by air from Yemen to strike targets in the US.
Last night Barack Obama called the attempt a “credible threat”.
The packages were discovered yesterday in the UK and Middle East aboard planes in an apparent change of tactics by al-Qaida- inspired terrorists who had targeted synagogues in Chicago. The incident sparked an international terror alert on three continents following a tip-off from MI6 to the Americans, the Guardian understands.
One device was intercepted early yesterday morning at East Midlands airport, near Leicester, en route from Yemen to Chicago, via the UK. It had wires protruding from an eight-inch ink cartridge which also had traces of white powder. A second device, described as identical, was intercepted aboard a freight plane in Dubai, whose journey had also started in Yemen, a country identified by western officials as home to terrorists who have tried to strike against the US.
Counter-terrorism sources told the Guardian the device discovered in the UK was not found by chance but specific intelligence led to a decision to subject cargo on the plane to extra searches. Last night John Brennan, assistant to the US president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, said Saudi Arabia had provided vital information.
Officials in Britain and the US were trying to ascertain what the devices were capable of and what the terrorists intended.
Barack Obama said in a statement last night that both packages contained “explosive material” and represented a credible terrorist threat to the US. One UK security source said despite Obama’s announcement the aim was probably to cause panic and not to bomb any target.
Obama, speaking in Washington and days before midterm elections, said Yemen’s president had pledged to cooperate in the investigation. He effectively named the Islamist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as being chief suspects.
Obama said: “I’ve also directed that we spare no effort in investigating the origins of these suspicious packages and their connection to any additional terrorist plotting. Although we are still pursuing all the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen. We also know that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies.”
The first device discovered, said Obama, was in the UK. It sparked intense activity at the White House as officials scrambled to meet what they believe was the latest terrorist attempt to strike the US.
The plane that landed in the UK was operated by the parcel company UPS. It had taken off from Yemen, and was due to fly to two locations in the US. It made a routine stop at the UK’s largest freight airport, East Midlands, at 3.30am on Friday morning and, sources said, intelligence reports led it to be subjected to extra searches.
A source with close knowledge of the events said a large box was found by employees carrying out screening checks in the UPS facility at East Midlands. Initial checks were inconclusive and the UPS flight, which had come from Yemen, was allowed to fly on to the US without the box on board. But the discovery of a freight bomb in Dubai prompted a further check which revealed that a toner cartridge for a Hewlett Packard printer contained a hidden suspect device. The source said the bomb was “cleverly disguised” and a “substantial” device which contained explosives. It was wired with a mobile phone, most likely to act as a timer to detonate the device.
After its discovery the device was then split in two and sent for detailed scientific investigation by the authorities. It is understood that the Dubai bomb was identical.
Minutes after the find in the Midlands, Obama was told in Washington of the discovery, amid concerns that some sort of terrorist action emanating from Yemen was feared.
Scotland Yard said: “Early today, Friday 29 October, an American-registered cargo plane arrived at East Midlands airport from the Yemen en route to Chicago via Philadelphia.
“The plane stopped at East Midlands airport as part of a routine stopover. Cargo removed from the plane was examined. Further tests were carried out. Following this a number of items have been sent for additional scientific examination.”
Theresa May, the home secretary, confirmed the package at East Midlands contained explosive material, but it was not clear whether it was a “viable explosive device”. May, who spoke with her US counterpart Janet Napolitano yesterday, said: “We have been working closely with US counterparts following the discovery of a suspect package on a flight to Chicago which had landed in transit at East Midlands airport.
“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.”
She said that Cobra, the government’s emergency planning committee, met yesterday and would meet again today.
She added: “We are reviewing the security measures for air freight from Yemen and are in discussion with industry contacts.”
Yemen has been of increasing concern to western counter-terrorism officials, who suspect its use as a base for al-Qaida inspired terrorists. American officials said intelligence agencies have, over recent months, tracked three other packages out of Yemen for delivery to the US that appeared to be trial runs for the smuggling of a bomb on board a cargo plane. They said that the grounding of planes from the US and UK to Dubai for further searches was in part based on that intelligence.
Their suspicion has been that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – which was responsible for the failed attempt to blow up a passenger aircraft over Detroit on Christmas Day last year using a Nigerian suicide bomber – was planning an attack on cargo planes.
American law enforcement officials warned Jewish groups in Chicago and New York that they may be a target for dangerous packages. Fed Ex said it was suspending all deliveries from Yemen.
Gordon Brown banned direct passenger flights from Yemen to the UK in January. The US Department for Homeland Security said it had taken a “number of steps” to enhance aviation security last night.
Brennan said: “The United States is grateful to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen.
“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 in Dubai and East Midlands airport.
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