WASHINGTON — Two packages containing explosives and addressed to two Chicago-area synagogues were found Friday aboard U.S.-bound aircraft in Britain and Dubai following a tipoff to American authorities, apparently from Saudi Arabia.
Leaders of Jewish institutions in Chicago put their staffs on alert after the news broke.
A Yemen-based al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, topped the U.S. government's list of suspects. The group shot to prominence last Christmas after a failed bombing of a U.S. passenger jet over Detroit by a Nigerian wearing explosives-laden underwear.
President Barack Obama, who was first informed of the packages on Thursday night, told a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon that officials were trying to determine a connection, if any, between the packages and broader plots by al-Qaida or other groups.
The discovery of the packages four days before critical midterm congressional elections underscores "the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism," Obama said.
One of the packages was found on a cargo plane in Dubai, the other on a plane in East Midlands, north of London. Officials said the second package contained a printer toner cartridge with wires and powder.
The Associated Press said it was told by officials that preliminary tests indicated the packages contained the powerful industrial explosive PETN, the same chemical used in the foiled Christmas attack. The tests had not been confirmed.
McClatchy Newspapers reported that one package was sent through United Parcel Service and the other through FedEx, citing an unnamed American official. UPS said it was suspending service from Yemen until further notice; FedEx said it was halting all shipments from that country.
Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, noted that no UPS cargo planes land or take off in Yemen, but sources said UPS uses subcontractors in that country.
John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism official, said the explosives "were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of attack," but provided no further details.
Brennan, in a statement issued later Friday, said the U.S. was grateful to Saudi Arabia for information that "helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen." The statement also thanked the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates for their help in identifying the packages.
In the U.S., cargo planes were searched up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and an Emirates Airlines passenger jet was escorted to New York by U.S. Air Force F-15 jets. No explosives were found aboard those planes, though inspections were continuing on at least two.
Obama did not specifically accuse Yemen's al-Qaida branch, but Brennan called it the most active al-Qaida franchise and said anyone associated with the group was a subject of concern.
The radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now is in hiding in Yemen, is believed to have inspired recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Detroit airliner bombing last Christmas Day. Another American hiding in Yemen, Samir Khan, has helped produce al-Qaida propaganda.