Bomb plot prompts security alert

Investigations launched after discovery of explosives in packages shipped by air from Yemen to targets in the US.

    Yemen, which has an active al-Qaeda presence, has vowed to 'do its best' to investigate the parcel-bomb plot [Reuters]

    Security officials across three continents are on high alert after the UK and the United Arab Emirates intercepted two packages containing explosive material that were being shipped by air from Yemen to targets in the US.

    The packages were discovered on Friday at East Midlands Airport, in Nottingham, north of London, and at a courier facility in Dubai, a major Gulf business hub. Both contained computer-printer equipment packed with powder and attached to wires.

    Yemeni authorities seized and were examining up to 26 suspect parcels on Saturday. And in the UK, Theresa May, the home secretary, announced a ban on all unaccompanied cargo coming from Yemen into the country. The failed plot has already prompted scrutiny of airport security in the country.

    Al Jazeera's Monica Villamizar, reporting from Washington, DC, said that US authorities now consider Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to be "more of a threat to the US and its interests now than even Afghanistan and Pakistan".

    She also said that US investigators will now look at previously shipped packages from Yemen to determine if they were used as a "dry run" by al-Qaeda.

    Yemen connection

    In Yemen, authorities have launched their own investigation. Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Aden, said that local security forces are racing to find those responsible for the plot, and that US authorities consider Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Muslim religious leader, as the most dangerous al-Qaeda figure in Yemen.

    Al-Awlaki has been on the CIA's capture-or-kill list since April.

    John Brennan, the US homeland security adviser, spoke to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, on the phone and provided details about the intercepted packages, our correspondent said.

    He also quoted Saleh as saying that Yemen would "do its best" to track down the source. The Arabian peninsula nation has been battling Houthi Shia fighters in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a growing al-Qaeda presence.

    Dubai Police supplied pictures of an ink cartridge of a printer wired and stuffed with explosives [Reuters]

    For their part, police in Dubai said the package they found bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. They also said that the ink cartridge found at the sorting facility was packed with pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, confirming what Jane Harman, a Democratic congresswoman from California who was briefed on the incident, had told the New York Times newspaper earlier. 

    PETN is the same substance that was packed into the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who attempted to ignite a bomb on board an airliner over the US on December 25 last year.

    The police said the explosive materials were wired to a mobile phone SIM card hidden inside the printer.

    The package found in the UK was on board a UPS cargo aircraft, while the other, in Dubai, was found in a FedEx sorting facility.

    Al Jazeera's Dan Nolan, reporting from Dubai, said that authorities were pleased that the package had been found before it was put on a flight, but also concerned given the volume of air traffic that passes through the emirate.

    Multiple flights come into Dubai from Yemen every day, and the Dubai-owned carrier, Emirates, operates five flights a day directly to the US, he said.

    Packages stopped

    Both UPS and FedEx said they had halted all packages being sent from Yemen to the US while the incident is investigated.

    In September, a large fire broke out in the cargo hold of a UPS cargo jet shortly after it took off from the Dubai airport. The plane crashed, killing both crew members. Our correspondent said that investigators will probably now check to see if any cargo from Yemen was on board.

    In depth

      Profile: The US counterterrorism bureaucracy
      Blogs: US air security shifts beyond borders
      Timeline: Attacks on US
      Video: Yemen airport security

    Bob Ayers, an independent security analyst, told Al Jazeera that cargo is subject to less stringent security screening than passenger luggage.

    The screening of cargo has been a point of debate in the US; in 2007, congress directed the Transportation Security Administration to screen all cargo carried on passenger flights beginning this year, according to US media. 

    "Cargo is in big pallets, it's wrapped, its prepared for shipment," Ayers said. "You can't X-ray the large pallet in many cases. You don't tear it apart because its already been pre-packaged, so cargo has always been less rigorously inspected than baggage going into a passenger aircraft."

    Friday's discoveries came after a tip from Saudi Arabia, the White House said, triggering a major security alert on three continents.

    As officials moved to check other cargo bound for the US from Yemen, President Barack Obama pointed the finger at AQAP.

    Canadian and US fighter jets were scrambled to escort an Emirates flight to New York City, and a UPS lorry carrying two items from Yemen was stopped and searched in New York as well. 

    Two UPS aircraft parked at airports in Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey, were moved away from terminals and searched.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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