Suspicious packages found on United Parcel Service and FedEx planes reportedly originated in Yemen. While the planes appear to be undamaged, the incidents could bring fresh scrutiny to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the relatively new franchise that claimed responsibility for the failed underwear bomber plot on Christmas Day last year.
A spokesman in Yemen’s US embassy said in a statement that the Yemeni government, which has carried out numerous strikes against suspected AQAP operatives over the past 10 months, has launched a full-scale investigation.
“We are working closely with international partners – including the US – on the incident,” said Mohammed Albasha, adding that no UPS cargo planes land or take off from Yemeni airports.
However, an airport employee in Sanaa, who did not want his name used, confirmed that there are private company flights from Sanaa to the United Kingdom, where a suspicious package was found at East Midlands airport at 3:28 a.m. local time.
The UPS store in Sanaa was staffed with one employee and one guard Friday evening local time. The employee refused to talk to the media.
The White House said that in addition to the package found in the UK, which according to CNN contained a “manipulated” toner cartridge, another suspicious item was found in Dubai. Both were said to have originated in Yemen.
“Last night, intelligence and law enforcement agencies discovered potential suspicious packages on two planes in transit to the US,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday. “As a result of security precautions triggered by this threat, the additional measures were taken regarding the flights at Newark Liberty and Philadelphia International Airports.”
Among the suspected targets were Chicago-area synagogues.
The incident, which CNN posited could be a “dry run” for a future terrorist plot, is one of numerous red flags raised this year about suspected Al Qaeda militants operating in Yemen.
The country’s weak central government, which has difficulty maintaining order in Yemen’s rugged mountain terrain, has over the past year quietly strengthened its cooperation with US counterterrorism officials to address the militant threat.
The US military announced early this year it would more than double the $67 million aid package to the country. Since the failed Christmas Day bombing on a Detroit-bound airliner, international concern that Yemen could become the next Afghanistan – a lawless refuge from which to launch terrorist attacks on the West – has risen.
The rise in prominence of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher linked to the Fort Hood shootings last year and now wanted by the CIA, has heightened fears that the militants could more easily navigate Western society with his help.
Experts have cautioned, however, that focusing US and international efforts solely on containing the Al Qaeda threat could backfire.
Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and faces numerous other challenges, including corruption, a violent southern secessionist movement, tensions between powerful tribes and the central government, and dwindling resources.