Officials Sweep Cargo Planes For Explosives

Michele Norris talks with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston about suspicious packages found in Britain and Dubai. The packages originated from Yemen, law enforcement officials said, and there have been searches at airports in Philadelphia and Newark, N.J.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with a terrorism alert. Authorities have discovered two mail bombs from Yemen bound for the U.S. Here's President Obama at the White House late this afternoon.

President BARACK OBAMA: Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals working with our friends and allies identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States, specifically two places of Jewish worship in Chicago.

Those packages have been located in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom. An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material.

NORRIS: The first package in Dubai included cell phones and detonators. The second package in the United Kingdom contained a printer toner cartridge with wires and a circuit board connected to it.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story, and she joins us now. Dina, what do you know exactly right now?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies spent much of the day trying to track down almost two dozen packages that have been sent to the U.S. from Yemen over the past couple of days. And they did out of concern that there were more mail bombs out there.

The White House wouldn't say what kind of explosives they discovered, but they did say that these mail bombs definitely were live bombs. It's unclear how they would have been detonated. And so far, only two packages have been confirmed as having explosives, but they want to make sure that's the total number.

NORRIS: So they're tracking these other packages to the U.S.?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, they don't know how many there are. They found packages from Yemen in Philadelphia and New Jersey and New York so far. The FBI swept and tested a number of packages on two UPS planes in Philadelphia, so far no explosives on those planes. And a plane in New Jersey was swept and cleared earlier today.

And then late this afternoon, it was pretty dramatic - two fighter jets scrambled and escorted an Emirates flight from Dubai to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Apparently, a package from Yemen was on that flight, too. And then the NYPD, the New York Police Department, intercepted a UPS truck in New York that was delivering something to the JPMorgan Chase Bank in Brooklyn. It turns out that was from Yemen, but it was filled with bank receipts.

NORRIS: So have authorities been able to piece together what they think the people behind these packages might have been up to?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they believe al-Qaida in Yemen is behind this somehow, and they wouldn't rule out that this American-born radical cleric we've been talking about, Anwar al-Awlaki, is a suspect in this. But no one has been arrested for this plot yet. And they don't know if this just the beginning of something or if they foiled the whole thing.

Whatever it is, whoever is behind this, there's always something that, you know, they can take away from each one of these attempts. And even though this didn't work, this did show them something about how U.S. authorities respond to, for example, packages in cargo planes.

Now, the Times Square bombing back in May didn't kill anyone, but it got a lot of people excited. Same thing with the Christmas Day bombing, the young Nigerian who allegedly was sent to bomb the plane, he failed. The explosives didn't go off that were packed in his underwear, but it sent terrorism authorities, you know, scurrying. So they get a value from that kind of attack, too. So even though these first two packages we've seen didn't hurt anyone, there could be value there.

And Obama's top terrorism official at the White House, John Brennan, told reporters that they didn't know what this attempted attack really was yet, and that's what they're trying to find out.

NORRIS: Dina, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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