WASHINGTON, Oct 30, 2010 (AFP) - Suspect packages from Yemen unleashed an international security alert in Britain, the United States and around the Middle East on Friday, sparking fears of an Al-Qaeda cargo plane plot.
The two suspect packages were pulled overnight off one plane in Britain and another in Dubai, both in transit for the United States and destined for undisclosed religious institutions in Chicago.
The FBI said no explosives had been found and much remained unclear about the nature of the suspected plot, which could have severe ramifications for the global cargo industry.
US President Barack Obama was informed late Thursday of a "potential terrorist threat" and intelligence agencies were investigating whether Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen was involved, officials said.
A link to Al-Qaeda in Yemen was "a possibility we're looking into but it's too soon to say definitively," said a US counter-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yemeni officials said their government had launched a full investigation and was working closely on the incident with international partners, including the United States.
US fighter jets were scrambled to escort a plane, reportedly Emirates Airlines flight 201, which was intercepted once it reached Canadian and then American airspace because it had a package from Yemen on board.
Media pictures of the suspicious package found in Britain appeared to show an ink toner cartridge, a small circuit board and attached wires, but officials were staying quiet on the contents.
"Last night, intelligence and law enforcement agencies discovered potential suspicious packages on two planes in transit to the United States," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
"Authorities were able to identify and examine two suspicious packages, in East Midlands, United Kingdom and one in Dubai. Both of these packages originated from Yemen."
US authorities warned Jewish leaders in Chicago of a threat against synagogues in the city, which reportedly could be part of the suspected plot.
"We were told that synagogues should be on the alert," Linda Hasse, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told AFP. "We are taking appropriate precautions and advising local synagogues to do likewise."
It was not clear what was in the FedEx package found in Dubai but the US delivery giant said subsequently that it was suspending all deliveries from Yemen.
"In cooperation with the FBI, local authorities have confiscated a suspicious package at the FedEx facility in Dubai," a company statement said.
"The shipment originated in Yemen and as an additional safety measure, FedEx has embargoed all shipments originating from Yemen."
As the Department of Homeland Security announced tighter security around the United States, cargo planes at international airports in Philadelphia and Newark were towed away to be checked.
"Out of an abundance of caution the planes were moved to a remote location where they are being met by law enforcement officials and swept," the Transportation Security Administration added.
US media reports suggested that at least one of the cargo planes being swept in the United States had also passed through East Midlands Airport.
The cargo scare offered a new twist as Western authorities have usually focused on dangers posed to passenger airliners following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Al-Qaeda hijacked planes and struck targets in New York and Washington.
"We're working with our foreign partners, the Brits and others, looking into who these might have come from, what the purpose of them was, what's contained in them, whether it's explosives or something else," the US counter-terrorism official said.
Fran Townsend, who was homeland security advisor to former president George W. Bush, told CNN the security scare followed growing intelligence concerns.
"There had been a rising concern about packages and cargo being used to launch an attack," she said.
"The US intelligence community has been focused on that. You add to that in the last 24 hours a tip from a very credible US ally who provided some, I'm told, very specific information about packages coming out of Yemen."
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, faces a growing threat from the local branch of his global jihadist network.
Over the past decade, it has become a haven for violent extremists, becoming the headquarters of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the hiding place for US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was linked to high-profile terror plots in the United States.