Suspicious US-bound packages from Yemen: A terrorist test run?

Two suspicious US-bound packages from Yemen were stopped last night – one in Dubai and one in Britain. It set off alerts in the US, as well as speculation as to who sent the parcels – and why.

WNBC New York/Reuters
Law enforcement officials and bomb squad officers surround a UPS cargo plane as the plane and it contents are searched in this still image taken from WNBC aerial video shot over Newark, N.J., Friday.

The security precautions triggered by the discovery of two suspicious packages from Yemen aboard US-bound cargo planes suggest that international cooperation is capable of detecting at least some potential terrorist threats.

The two suspicious parcels were found on planes in Britain and Dubai Thursday night, American time. As a result of suspicions raised by the packages, two East Coast airports in the US – Philadelphia International and Newark Liberty International in Newark, N.J. – were put on alert Friday after UPS cargo planes were searched for suspicious cargo.

In addition, a UPS delivery truck in New York City was also investigated, and a passenger flight from the United Arab Emirates to New York's John F. Kennedy airport was accompanied by US fighter jets for a time because it held cargo from Yemen.

The package in Britain contained a printer toner cartridge rigged with wires and accompanied by a white powder, although officials later said results from explosives tests were negative. The UPS plane in Newark was cleared, as was the UPS truck in New York City. The Emirates airliner landed without incident.

The discovery by intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the strange packages – on the same night and originating from the same country – raises questions for counterterrorism officials.

Were the packages part of some kind of dry run or test of counterterrorism measures?

And who in Yemen sent them? Both packages had US destinations.

In a statement released Friday, the White House said President Obama was informed of a “potential terrorist threat” at 10:35 p.m. Thursday by his assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan. “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 statement said.

The White House also underscored the role that quick and direct communication among US intelligence agencies and between US agencies and their foreign counterparts played in triggering the investigation. The statement said the packages were identified and examined and information was shared “based on close cooperation among US government agencies and with our foreign allies and partners.”

Poor communication and interagency rivalry have been cited in past intelligence failures, most famously in the case of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The suspicious but ultimately harmless packages suggest to some counterterrorism experts that someone may have been attempting a dry run of an envisioned bombing plot, and may have wanted to determine whether or not their weapons could slip through security screenings.

Evidence revealed that the 9/11 suicide bombers made several dry-run flights to test their ability to board flights with weapons like box cutters.

The fact that the packages originated in Yemen immediately raises suspicions about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is headquartered in what the US considers to be one of the top focal points of the international counterterrorism battle.

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