Law enforcement officials acting on what President Obama called "a credible terror threat," found package shipments with suspected explosives in air cargo networks bound for the United States.
Obama, in a late afternoon televised statement, said the packages had been shipped from Yemen "do apparently contain explosive material." He said the packages were addressed to "places of Jewish worship" in the Chicago area.
The president promised "additional cargo security steps," but did not specify any actions.
One of the packages was found in the UPS system at the East Midlands Airport in the UK and other was at a FedEx facility in Dubai. Authorities also isolated and searched three UPS freighters that landed in Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., early Friday, because they also carried cargo that originated in Yemen. U.S. fighter jets also escorted an Emirates passenger aircraft to New York's John F. Kennedy International Aircraft because that plane had cargo from Yemen.
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John Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security, told reporters late Friday the UPS aircraft were stopped because "they were in fact carrying cargo coming in from Yemen." UPS officials said the planes were later cleared and allowed to fly onto the UPS hub in Louisville, Ky.
Numerous reports had said authorities believed the threat originated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that terrorists may have been testing air cargo defenses as part of a plot to send bombs into the country.
But the White House statement late Friday suggested officials believe the actions were more than a dry run. "It does appear there were explosives," Brennan said. "They were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some sort of attack." They were discovered, he said, through "redundant layers of security" and that authorities were looking for the packages that eventually were found.
Gibbs said the packages examined in London and Dubai both originated in Yemen, the Middle Eastern nation that has been a site of growing concern over activity by al Qaeda. The packages stopped in Europe and Dubai were reportedly addressed to religious institutions in the Chicago area.
Gibbs said authorities identified the packages with "close cooperation among U.S. government agencies and with our foreign allies and partners." He said the president was told at 10:30 p.m. Thursday night of "a potential terrorist threat" and directed authorities "to determine whether these threats are a part of any additional terrorist plotting."
The UPS planes, two of them 767s and one an MD-11, had flown Friday from airports in Paris, East Midlands in the United Kingdom and Cologne, Germany, where UPS has its main European hub.
The Transportation Security Administration issued a statement saying, “Out of an abundance of caution the planes were moved to a remote location where they are being met by law enforcement officials and swept.”
Other reports said UPS package vans in the New York City area had been searched for possible suspicious packages.
Meanwhile, FedEx immediately placed an embargo on all shipments out of the Yemen and UPS barred shipments from the country later on Friday. Neither carrier flies directly from Yemen and officials at the companies would not comment on how the parcels entered their express networks.