President Obama declared Friday that the United States "will not waver in our resolve" to snuff out terrorist attacks after two explosive-laden packages destined for Jewish sites in Chicago were discovered aboard cargo flights originating in Yemen, home of an al-Qaida affiliate hostile to the United States.
Confirming the apparent plot against his hometown -- Obama plans to visit Chicago this weekend -- the president said he was alerted Thursday night about a "credible terrorist attack."
In a later development, federal officials halted all U.S.-bound cargo flights from Yemen, where U.S. cargo inspectors were being dispatched apparently to look for ways to improve security there, according to a senator who was briefed about the decision.
Authorities believe there is a "strong possibility" that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- the terrorist group's affiliate in Yemen -- is behind the attack, a U.S. official involved in the investigation told National Journal. The group was responsible for the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner last Christmas. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Obama went out of his way to note that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is based in Yemen. He promised to "spare no effort" to investigate the plot involving two packages found in Britain and Dubai. At least one of the packages included ink toner with white powder and wires coming out of it.
"The American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms," the president said in the White House briefing room.
Elaborating on the president's remarks, the U.S. official said a package recovered at Britain's East Midlands Airport was directed to a Chicago synagogue while one found in Dubai was addressed to a Jewish community center in the same city.
The news rattled U.S. leaders and led to at least one false report -- New York police, responding to a suspicious-package report aboard a cargo truck, found an envelope filled with bank receipts. Still, House Homeland Security ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., said the evidence in Britain and Dubai suggests there was a coordinated plan against the U.S.
"Obviously," he told MSNBC, "something real is happening here."
On high alert, U.S. military F-15 fighter jets escorted a passenger plane originating from Yemen into John F. Kennedy International Airport near New York City.
Security officials had been monitoring the the suspected plot for days, according to a senior law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Obama was first briefed on the security threat last night and is receiving regular updates. Shortly after Obama's statement, the White House said the devices had been disabled.
“Based on close cooperation among U.S. government agencies and with our foreign allies and partners, authorities were able to identify and examine two suspicious packages, one in London and one in Dubai. Both of these packages originated from Yemen,” according to a White House statement.
A subsequent statement by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan suggested that Saudi Arabia provided the tip that set off the search for the packages. "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," said Brennan, who also named the United Arab Emirates and Britain as some of the "friends and partners [who] helped make it possible to increase our vigilance and identify the suspicious packages in Dubai and East Midlands Airport."
With just days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, the news captured the attention of a public that had been more focused on jobs and the economy, not national security. Faced with security and a political problem, the White House had to ponder whether to press ahead with a final weekend of campaigning that was going to take him to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Virginia, and his home state of Illinois.
The suspicious packages were said to be carried on two commercial cargo flights – one from the United Parcel Service and the other FedEx. The U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity told National Journal that the suspicious package found on the plane in the East Midlands in the United Kingdom could have been a dry run for an attack.
The package was found during routine screening of cargo in the United Kingdom, prompting authorities to scour three planes and a truck in the United States on Friday. Searches were conducted in Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and New York City, but no explosives were found.
The security concerns quickly spread to other cargo shipping companies. FedEx, for example, announced that it has embargoed all shipments from Yemen.
“We’ve notified the intended recipients of the packages, but we are not making public who those intended recipients are,” said Special Agent Ross Rice, of the Chicago FBI.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said after a briefing by Transportation Security Administration director John Pistole that the movement of air freight from Yemen has been stopped and that cargo inspectors were heading there.
"The use of commercial cargo carriers demonstrates the continuing determination of terrorists to exploit any vulnerabilities in our security systems," Collins said. "I have urged Mr. Pistole to strengthen our screening of cargo and to prevent any packages originating in Yemen from entering the United States without thorough screening," she added.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago said it has alerted synagogues not to open packages that appear suspicious or which come from Yemen or from any organization that has the name “Yemen” in it.
“Needless to say, we all hope that nothing will come of this. But given the realities of today’s world and the information that has been made available, it is important that these security precautions be taken by all area synagogues,” said Michael Kotzin, Jewish Federation executive vice president.
The Yemen Embassy in the United States issued a statement saying that no UPS cargo planes land or take off from Yemeni airports and there are no direct flights from Yemen either to the United States or the United Kingdom.
“The Yemeni government launched a full scale investigation,” the embassy said. “We are working closely with international partners – including the U.S. – on the incident.”
--with Marc Ambinder, Sara Sorcher and Aamer Madhani contributing contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 29, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.