Story Of The U.S.-Bound Explosives Emerges

U.S. authorities continue to investigate a terrorism plot that appears to have been launched by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Two packages sent from Yemen to the U.S. were intercepted, one in the U.K., the other in Dubai. They were found to contain explosive materials. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story and speaks with host Scott Simon about the latest developments.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The search continues for suspicious packages in the United States and other countries. The concern about the packages started after two shipments containing explosives were discovered yesterday. The packages contained toner cartridges, like the ones you might find in a computer printer but reportedly, these cartridges were filled with explosive material.

They were sent from Yemen. They were bound for two synagogues in Chicago. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston's following this story. She joins us from New York. Dina, thanks for being with us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIMON: What do we know about these packages?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know that they contained this explosive material, as you said. And the top terrorism official at the White House, John Brennan, said that they were designed to hurt someone. But it's unclear whether they were supposed to go off in the cargo planes, or were supposed to be detonated once they got to the U.S.

SIMON: And may we ask, do we know by name the synagogues for which they were intended?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The White House has been keeping that really secret, and they've instead sent out general warnings to synagogues in the Chicago area. I mean, there are lots of things about this attempted attack that we really don't know. I mean, one of the packages had a cell phone with the toner cartridge, and another had a timer.

But John Brennan, the terrorism czar at the White House, said he wasn't sure how they were supposed to be detonated. All we do know is that they weren't supposed to explode on opening, like Unabomber bombs. British authorities have the package that was picked up in East Midlands Airport. And the first test on that explosive indicated that it was PETN, the same explosive that was used in the Christmas Day bombing against that U.S. plane bound for Detroit.

And the people who took credit for that were al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. But they haven't definitively said that it's PETN for that particular box. In Dubai, where the other package bound for Chicago was found, security officials have definitively said it was PETN.

SIMON: And do security officials think that that likely means, definitively, that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is responsible for this attack? Or this attempted attack, I should say.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, no one is taking credit for it yet. And AQAP, as it's known, is definitely on the top of the list of suspects. I mean, this has all the hallmarks of one of their operations. They're known for their really creative bomb-making. They tried to kill the Saudi intelligence chief a little over a year ago by sending one of their high-ranking members to him, saying he wanted to surrender. And he had a bomb hidden, literally, inside his body, and tried to detonate it when the two met. And he didn't kill the intelligence chief, but it gives you an idea of what AQAP is capable of.

And because of that assassination attempt, Saudi intelligence has been all over them.

SIMON: And it was Saudi intelligence who tipped off the U.S.?

TEMPLE-RASTON: To this plot, yes. That's what it looks like. Two U.S. officials told me that the Saudis actually provided the tracking numbers of two suspicious packages, and told the U.S. what to look for - that is to say, that there were these toner cartridges.

And John Brennan, this top White House terrorism official, said they had the information that led them to the packages, and I think we have tape on that.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Presidential Adviser): I'm saying that, you know, whenever you pull a string, there's a reason why you start to pull that string. And we had a reason to pull it, and as a result of what we were able to uncover in East Midlands Airport, with the very strong cooperation of British authorities, we were able to also then take additional steps.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's really hard to tell at this point whether they felt really confident that they have all the packages with bombs in them; in other words, that there are more than two. And they're searching now for more packages, kind of out of an abundance of caution. It's unclear whether they think the plot is still unfolding, or whether they got their arms around it.

SIMON: And Dina, any reason to think that the imminence of midterm elections has anything to do with the timing of these bombings?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's definitely something authorities are looking at as a possible reason for the timing of this.

You may recall that Osama bin Laden had a habit of putting out videotapes or messages just before elections in this country, to try and affect them. And authorities are trying to figure out if that's the case here, too.

SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much for being with us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

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