Suspicious packages sent from Yemen and postmarked for Chicago synagogues represent a "credible terrorist threat against our country," U.S. President Barack Obama said as counterterrorism authorities everywhere were sent scrambling to divine the significance of the plot.
Whether the shipments amount to a clumsy plot against Jewish targets in America, or a "dry run" for a future aviation attack, they were met with a highly co-ordinated response from global security agencies spanning three continents.
Unknown terrorists in Yemen seem to have hoped that FedEx, UPS, and airplane cargo holds could help them succeed where Shoe Bombers, Liquid Bombers and Underwear Bombers have failed. The hope? To bypass layers upon layers of post-9/11 passenger screening, by disguising bomb components as innocuous shipments: In this case, powder-encrusted printer cartridges with circuitry attached.
Authorities had discovered two suspicious packages as agents working in several countries intercepted the goods, pulling them out of planes on the tarmacs of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and in the East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom.
Fears that similar shipments were still out there sent Canadian CF-18 jet fighters scrambling from Quebec to escort one jumbo jet south. And Mr. Obama took to the airwaves, to assure a pre-election public his administration has a grip on international terrorism.
"An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material," Mr. Obama said, adding that they were destined for "two places of Jewish worship in Chicago."
While it's unlikely the packages could have punched holes in the fuselage of a transatlantic flight, some observers speculated the shipments were a dry run for a prospective airplane attack. No group has claimed responsibility, but the President pointed a finger at an al-Qaeda offshoot - al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the same Yemen-based group that plotted the Underwear Bomber attack last Christmas Day.
Mr. Obama, who has stepped up covert campaigns against al-Qaeda and its offshoots, is appealing to Yemen to redouble efforts to root out AQAP. Yet a series of recent raids and missile strikes have failed to kill or capture terrorist leaders - including Anwar al-Alwalki, the fugitive radical cleric and U.S.-citizen who is now urging Muslims everywhere to wage a holy war against his adopted homeland.
The scare shows that terrorists continue to search for soft points in the international aviation system. Successive schemes by terrorist passengers have failed over the years, to the point where radical extremists may now see cargo shipments as the more fruitful avenue.
United Parcel Service and FedEx have both ceased cargo shipments out of Yemen in response to the scare. One of the two suspicious packages discovered Friday was found aboard a UPS plane that had flown to Britain - though Scotland Yard said no operational bomb components were seized. The other was discovered aboard a FedEx flight in Dubai, and authorities there said some explosives were found.
There were false alarms too. UPS planes that had landed at Newark and Philadelphia were searched thoroughly. And two Canadian CF-18's from Bagotville, Que., escorted a transatlantic Emirates flight across Canadian airspace before U.S. F-15s followed from the border to JFK Airport. No suspicious packages were found aboard these planes.
Canada's Conservative government, now angling to buy state-of-the-art jet fighters, announced in May it would be spending $100-million to enhance cargo security to protect against terrorist attacks.
Critics, however, says many problems remain - and note that Ottawa has been silent about the aviation-security fixes proposed in last June's report on the Air India tragedy. In 1984, Vancouver-based Sikh terrorists planted suitcase-bombs that killed 331 people.
Travellers can expect heightened scrutiny in the wake of the current scare. "Currently, we do not have information that these incidents were targeting Canada," said John Babcock, a spokesman for Transport Minister Chuck Strahl. But, he said, "Canada has implemented increased vigilance. ... travellers may see signs of this increased vigilance during their travels."