MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And first this hour, to some curious questions about the bombs found on cargo planes last week. Were they intended to detonate, or were they trial runs? There's a clue from an earlier episode. Back in September, American intelligence officials intercepted some innocuous packages. They were filled with religious books, clothes and CDs on their way from Yemen to Chicago.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is with us now to sort this all out. Dina, tell us more about these packages back in September.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, U.S. officials had gotten some information in mid-September that indicated someone who was linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, had shipped several packages to the U.S. So, naturally, the officials intercepted them. They opened the packages, found no explosives and then allowed them to continue on to Chicago. And they were going to two people there who had absolutely no connection to AQAP. That's al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. So, at the time, from a law enforcement perspective, that episode was just filed away as a strange occurrence.
NORRIS: So they filed it away, but now they're taking another look since these latest packages actually did contain bombs.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, a lot of news organizations have been reporting that U.S. intelligence is thinking that those September packages were a dry run for the two packages sent last week. But now, officials are telling us that they're wondering if these HP printers that were in these packages last night -last week with nearly a pound of powerful explosives in them were also a dry run, like a second step, so terrorists could see if they could get explosives through cargo plane security.
Now, it's really interesting because last Friday we were hearing that there were no explosives in the packages all day long, and it wasn't until President Obama finally confirmed that there were explosive materials in those packages that we found out. And when I was talking to my sources, I was asking them if the packages without explosives could be some sort of test, and they kept on saying, well, what kind of tests would it be? If it doesn't have explosives in the box, what will they be testing? They said a real dry run would have to have included explosives.
NORRIS: So I just want to be clear about something, are you saying that the officials believed this latest episode was a test, and what would the terrorists have learned from such tests?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what I'm saying is they believe that this might have been a test, and if this was a test, too, then the lessons would have been really scary. I mean, the reason we were hearing that there were no explosives in the package found in the U.K. is because British officials actually missed it the first time around.
The U.S. told them specific tracking numbers for the package, and they scanned it, and they had a bomb-sniffing dog sniff it, and they said no - no, explosives. And the U.S. said, no, really. You should go take another look. And it was only then, when they opened up the printer and looked at the toner cartridge inside that they realized that they actually had explosives.
So now, AQAP and other terrorists have learned that because of this, that scanning machines used in the U.K. didn't detect the explosives and that sniffer dogs are unreliable, and that, potentially, you could get packages through undetected. That's what they've learned from this.
NORRIS: Troubling news. Now, I want to ask you about one other episode that might also have been a trial run. There have been some reports that a UPS plane went down in Dubai in early September. Is there any connection there to this latest plot?