UPDATED: 1:18 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS/AP) - Two suspicious packages containing explosives were intercepted on their way from Yemen to Chicago, authorities said Friday. President Barack Obama said authorities had uncovered a “credible terrorist threat.”
Authorities on three continents thwarted multiple terrorist attacks aimed at the United States from Yemen on Friday, seizing two explosive packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues and packed aboard cargo jets. The plot triggered worldwide fears that al-Qaida was launching a major new terror campaign.
One package was shipped through FedEx and was intercepted in Dubai. FedEx has told CBS 2 News that the suspicious package that tested positive for explosives never made it onto a FedEx plane. The package was detected by FedEx at its package handling facility in Dubai.
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President Barack Obama called the coordinated attacks a “credible terrorist threat,” and U.S. officials said they were increasingly confident that al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, the group responsible for the failed Detroit airliner bombing last Christmas, was responsible.
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Parts of the plot might remain undetected, Obama’s counterterror chief warned. “The United States is not assuming that the attacks were disrupted and is remaining vigilant,” John Brennan said at the White House.
Indications were that the goal was psychological, rather than physical damage.
“Certainly was a simple attempt to disrupt rather than a dry run. And i think it was an indication of the tremendous expenses which we are bearing in order to prevent ourselves from being struck by terrorists in order to protect the security of the American people,” University of Chicago professor Marvin Zonis said. “Certainly, it’s psychological terrorism. The goal is to disrupt us, to frighten us, but it isn’t the endgame. They’d rather get an explosive into our country and blow up some people, kill some people.”
In the U.S., cargo planes were searched up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and an Emirates Airlines passenger jet was escorted down the coast to New York by American fighter jets.
No explosives were found aboard those planes, though the investigation was continuing on at least two.
In Chicago, cargo terminals for both UPS and FedEx at O’Hare International Airport were immediately swept with bomb-sniffing dogs, and security around them was tightened as well.
There was no evidence found that any explosives reached Chicago or that they could have caused any damage if they did.
The events unfolded four days before national elections in which discussion of terrorism has played almost no role.
Obama said the U.S. is taking steps to enhance the safety of air travel, including beefing up cargo screening.
Obama told reporters Friday that he was alerted to the threat Thursday night and that he directed the Homeland Security Department and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps were necessary to protect American citizens.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago was notified of the situation at 10:30 a.m. Friday, and officials there are “taking proper precautions,” said associate vice president Linda Haase.
The organization is also advising local synagogues to take precautions, Haase said.
A law enforcement source tells CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine the word is out to synagogues in Chicago not to accept UPS packages from east of New York. The are asked to call Chicago Police if any delivery is attempted.
FBI spokesman Ross Rice added that while there are no identifiable or specific threats to the Chicago area, all churches, synagogues and mosques in the area are being warned to be vigilant for unsolicited or unexpected packages, especially those originating from overseas locations.
Obama’s sobering assessment, delivered from the White House podium, unfolded four days before national elections in which discussion of terrorism has played almost no role. The president went ahead with weekend campaign appearances.
The terrorist efforts “underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism,” the president said. While he said both packages that contained explosives originated in Yemen, he did not explicitly assign blame to al-Qaida, which is active in that Arab country and long has made clear its goal of launching new attacks on the United States.
Authorities in Dubai intercepted one explosive device. The second package was aboard a plane searched in East Midlands, north of London, and officials said it contained a printer toner cartridge with wires and powder. Brennan said the devices were in packages about the size of a breadbox.
While Obama didn’t specifically accuse Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, Brennan called it the most active al-Qaida franchise and said anyone associated with the group was a subject of concern.
The radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now is in hiding in Yemen, is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Detroit airliner bombing last Christmas Day. Another American hiding in Yemen, Samir Khan, has declared himself a traitor and has helped produce al-Qaida propaganda.
Most of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.
Brennan later told reporters that the explosives “were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of attack,” but he provided no further details.
“The forensic analysis is under way,” he said, adding, “Clearly from the initial observation, the initial analysis that was done, the materials that were found in the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm.”
Intelligence personnel had been monitoring a suspected plot for days, officials said. The packages in England and Dubai were discovered after Saudi Arabian intelligence picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., one official said.
U.S. intelligence officials warned last month that terrorists hoped to mail chemical and biological materials as part of an attack on America and other Western countries using the mail. The alert came in a Sept. 23 bulletin from the Homeland Security Department and obtained by The Associated Press.
In the hours following the discoveries, Yemeni officials and Scotland Yard were investigating and the U.S. issued a 72-hour ban on all cargo from Yemen.
“As a precaution, DHS has taken a number of steps to enhance security,” the agency said in a statement. “Some of these security measures will be visible while others will not.”
U.S. authorities conducted searches of aircraft in Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and New York City.
Since the failed Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, Yemen has been a focus for U.S. counterterrorism officials. Before that attack, the U.S. regarded al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen as primarily a threat in the region, not to the United States.
The Yemen branch known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has since become a leading source of terrorist propaganda and recruiting. Authorities believe about 300 al-Qaida members or cells operate in Yemen.
The Yemeni government has stepped up counterterrorism operations, with help from the U.S. military and intelligence officials. Mohammed Shayba, general-director of the state airline’s cargo department, said the government is conducting an investigation.
“Those in charge are in constant meetings and they are investigating and taking the issue seriously,” he told The Associated Press.