Washington: Authorities on three continents were investigating whether suspicious packages shipped from Yemen to Chicago religious sites were part of a terrorist plot late on Friday night.
No explosives were found till the time of filing this report. Officials on were probing whether the packages were sent as part of a dry run for an attack. Yemen is home to the al Qaeda branch that tried to bomb a US-bound airliner on Christmas.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials discovered suspicious packages in England and Dubai late night, prompting national security officials to alert US President Barack Obama to a "potential terrorist threat”, the White House said.
An al Qaeda link?
US counterterrorism officials said that two suspicious packages may have been part of an attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based al Qaeda off-shoot is known to test cargo screening systems for vulnerabilities.
"That`s one of the theories - that they are testing the system and probing for weaknesses," said a US counterterrorism official. "Rehearsals get you closer to the game."
Jewish synagogues on alert
Jewish synagogues have been placed on alert.
The FBI said it does not believe an attack is imminent but cautioned area religious institutions to be on the alert.
"There have been no threats made or received indicating that anyone or any location in Chicago is at risk," Ross Rice, spokesman for the FBI`s Chicago office, said in an e-mail.
"The two suspicious packages did not contain explosives."
Rice declined to say whether the packages were addressed to Jewish synagogues or another type of religious institution.
"Since two of the suspicious packages that were intercepted were addressed to religious institutions in Chicago, all churches, synagogues and mosques in the Chicago area should be vigilant for any unsolicited or unexpected packages, especially those originating from overseas locations," Rice said.
Jewish organisations were contacted early Friday and warned of the threat, said Linda Hasse, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
No decision on raising airport security: UK
It was too early to say if Britain will raise security levels at its airports following an alert over a suspect package at a British airport, a government spokeswoman said on Friday.
"We`re still looking into the details of this. It`s too soon to say," a spokeswoman for Britain`s Department for Transport said.
The US Department of Homeland Security said earlier US aviation security measures were being increased.
The package in England, discovered aboard a plane in East Midlands about two hours north of London, contained a toner cartridge with attached wires and powder. It was found during routine screening of cargo, prompting authorities to scour three planes and a truck in the United States on Friday, US officials said.
"The President directed US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security, to take steps to ensure the safety and security of the American people, and to determine whether these threats are a part of any additional terrorist plotting," the White House said in a statement.
Yemeni officials said they launched a terrorism investigation and Scotland Yard said its investigators were testing a number of items seized from the plane in East Midlands. In the US, searches were conducted in Philadelphia, Newark, NJ, and New York City.
The packages were being sent via UPS and FedEx. The packages, not the planes, originated in Yemen.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Kristin Lee says the planes in Philadelphia and Newark were swept. The planes were moved away from terminal buildings while law enforcement officials investigated.
Two Philadelphia jets belonging to UPS were searched. A federal law enforcement official said nothing suspicious was found.
A source with knowledge of the situation in Newark who was not authorised to speak publicly said the FBI and a bomb squad checked two packages there and gave the "all clear”.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the NYPD removed a package from a UPS truck in Brooklyn, tested it for possible explosives and found it not to be dangerous. The package was an envelope that came from Yemen, appeared to contain bank receipts, and was addressed to the JP Morgan Chase bank in Brooklyn, Kelly said. The package arrived on a plane that landed at Kennedy Airport, he said.
Mike Mangeot, a spokesman for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc, said two planes in Philadelphia that had come from Cologne, Germany, and Paris were being investigated.
"Out of an abundance of caution, those aircraft have been isolated, and they are looking into the shipments in question there," he said.
A third plane had arrived in Newark, NJ, from East Midlands airport. That plane was cleared and flew to UPS` main hub in Louisville, Ky, on its usual route, Mangeot said.
In central England, police had evacuated a freight distribution building at East Midlands Airport after a suspicious package was reported. Police and emergency workers examined the package and lifted the security cordon by midmorning, but Leicestershire Constabulary later said officers were re-examining it "as a precaution”.
Sarah Furbank, a passenger who was about to board a plane out of East Midlands Airport, said that she had noticed an increased security presence.
There were "quite a few police cars round the edge" of the airport, Furbank said. "Apparently there was an incident earlier according to staff but they didn`t go into detail."
(With Agencies’ inputs)