Friday, 29 October 2010

Tip-off from Yemen triggers security alert on two continents

Late on Thursday night, an MI6 officer responsible for Yemen received a tip-off from a local source of a possible al-Qaida plot to smuggle bombs to America on cargo aircraft.

Two devices were said to have been placed in the holds of planes that had already taken off from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, a country that has become one of the key fronts in the battle against Islamic terrorists.

Both flights appeared to be bound for Chicago, but one was flying via Dubai and the other was due to stop for fuel at East Midlands airport, near Nottingham.

The MI6 officer immediately passed the information on to officials in London, which in turn alerted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and their counterparts in Dubai, with a description of what the packages were thought to look like.

In turn, Leicestershire police were asked to check the hold of a UPS parcel service aircraft when it landed at East Midlands.

At 3.30am Friday morning, officers from Leicestershire police reported finding a suspicious package in a sealed cargo container on the UPS plane.

Addressed to a synagogue in Chicago, the parcel contained an office-sized printer cartridge, which had a small circuit board attached with wires crudely attached and white powder inside it, rather than the black toner powder it should have contained.

MI5 was informed of the find, and five minutes later, at 3.35am U.K. time, the news had been relayed to U.S. President Barack Obama by John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security and counter-terrorism.

Mr Brennan told the president that a "potential terrorist threat" to the U.S. had been identified.

Mr Obama ordered his intelligence and law enforcement agencies to step up security and find out whether the suspicious packages were "part of any additional terrorist plotting".

America was suddenly on high alert, though anyone who happened to be at East Midlands airport at the time would have seen little sign that the provincial hub was at the centre of a possible international terrorist plot.

Police cordoned off the cargo area of the airport as forensics experts were called in to examine the parcel, but the passenger terminal was allowed to carry on as normal, with no disruption to flights. By 10am, tests had established that the "device" did not contain explosives, and the cordon was lifted. The aircraft itself was allowed to take off for Philadelphia, its final stop before Chicago.

Further checks on the package are understood to have revealed that a Hewlett Packard printer contained a hidden device that gave greater cause for concern. It was said to be "cleverly disguised" and appeared to have been linked to a mobile phone. It was split in two and sent for detailed investigation by the authorities.

For the few airport staff who were aware of what was going on, the bomb scare seemed to have passed.

But 3,500 miles away, the second aircraft that had set off from Yemen was being searched after it landed at Dubai International Airport. Another suspicious package, also addressed to a Chicago synagogue, was intercepted.

This time, the parcel, which also contained a printer cartridge made to look like a bomb, had been sent via another American parcel service, FedEx, and again Mr Obama was informed. One unconfirmed report suggested the Dubai package did contain explosives.

In London, the latest twist was relayed to the security services, who in turn asked Leicestershire police to double-check the package at East Midlands.

At 2pm, the security cordon at the airport's cargo area was re-imposed, and this time a Royal Mail depot and other smaller offices were evacuated.

Exactly why the police increased security at the airport, having already declared the package safe, remains unclear, but forensic specialists wearing white boiler suits were seen going in and out of the cargo area.

On the other side of the Atlantic, UPS and FedEx aircraft were grounded on the orders of Mr Obama, with two aircraft searched at Philadelphia, including the one which had taken off from East Midlands, and one at Newark in New Jersey. A UPS truck was also stopped in New York before being given the all-clear.

Meanwhile, the first hint of a possible terrorist plot targeting Chicago synagogues was beginning to become public after Chicago police advised the Jewish Federation of Chicago to take security precautions.

By 5pm U.K. time, news of a possible terrorist plot had broken on American news channels, and East Midlands airport became the focus of world attention.

Confident that the suspicious package contained no explosives, police at East Midlands loaded the cartridge, shrink-wrapped in cellophane, on to a helicopter to be taken to the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism command, which had now been asked to take over the investigation.

By 5.30pm the police had left the airport and removed the cordon, and attention switched to the U.S., which had now become the centre of frenzied speculation and activity. Ray Kelly, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, took to the airwaves to reassure the city that one package that had originated in Yemen had been intercepted on a UPS truck in Brooklyn and had contained nothing more than bank receipts.

At the White House, Mr Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, confirmed that "law enforcement agencies discovered potential suspicious packages on two planes in transit to the United States".

It led to a febrile atmosphere at America's airports, where false alarms at San Francisco and Maine showed the nervousness that had descended on the continent.

At 8pm, concerns reached a new level when two F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to escort an Emirates passenger flight from Dubai, which had a package from Yemen in its hold and which was on the way to New York's JFK airport.

As Mr Obama prepared to address America last night, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced the suspension of all flights to Britain from Yemen.

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