NBC News and news services
updated 10/30/2010 1:29:29 AM ET 2010-10-30T05:29:29

Calling it a "credible terrorist threat," President Barack Obama said apparent explosive material was found on two U.S.-bound packages from Yemen, triggering searches of flights with other packages from Yemen and an investigation into whether al-Qaida was behind a new terror plot.

Sources told NBC News that both packages were actually laser printers that contained toner cartridges that had been tampered with, showing extruded wires and white powder. The packages, addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago, were found in Britain and Dubai on Thursday night.

"An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material," Obama told reporters.

"The United States is not assuming that the attacks were disrupted and is remaining vigilant," added White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

The devices were "in a form that was designed to try to carry out some kind of attack," he said. "Clearly, from the initial observation, the initial analysis that was done, the material that was found ... was intended to do harm."

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Brennan said the two packages had "been made inert."

Brennan also thanked Saudi Arabia for "developing information" about the packages. The tip that led to the discovery of the packages came from the Saudi Arabian authorities, sources said.

Video: Watch comments by counterterror adviser John Brennan (on this page)

PETN apparently detected
U.S. officials said initial indications are the packages contained PETN, a chemical that was also a component of shoe bomber Richard Reid's explosive in 2001 and last year's foiled Christmas Day airliner bombing attempt.

PETN is the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions and is popular among terrorist groups.

U.S. officials told NBC News the amount of explosives in one of the packages was about five times greater than quantity carried by the would-be Christmas Day bomber. That would make it slightly less than a pound, but that's a significant amount.

It was unclear how the devices were to be set off.

An electronic component seen in an image of one intercepted shipment appeared to be a printed circuit board from a dissassembled cell phone, said Olivier Clerc, a hardware application engineering manager contacted by CNN.

Clerc did not say how the circuit board would be used in the captured device, but terrorist groups have triggered bombs with cell phones, CNN said.

Investigators were also looking at recent shipments from Yemen to the U.S., particularly to Chicago, to see if whoever sent the packages had tried earlier to do a test run, accprding to NBC News.

Homeland Security said in a statement it was increasing cargo screening and boosting security at airports. Shipments from Yemen were also suspended until at least Nov. 1.

In the U.S., cargo planes were searched up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and an Emirates Airlines passenger jet was escorted down the coast to New York by American fighter jets.

No explosives were found aboard those planes, though the investigation was continuing on at least two.

The Yemeni government expressed astonishment at reports linking it to the explosive packages. In a statement, the government warned against "rush decisions in a case as sensitive as this one and before investigations reveal the truth."

Yemen is the home of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the offshoot branch that claimed responsibility for an attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner last Christmas.

While Obama didn't specifically accuse Yemen's al-Qaida branch, 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 helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Detroit-bound airliner bombing last Christmas Day. Another American hiding in Yemen, Samir Khan, has declared himself a traitor and has helped produce al-Qaida propaganda.

One of the packages was found at a FedEx facility in Dubai, the other aboard a cargo plane in East Midlands, north of London. Officials said they contained a printer toner cartridge with wires and powder. Brennan said the devices were in packages about the size of a breadbox.

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In Chicago, synagogues were warned to be on alert Friday.

Secure Community Network, part of the Jewish Federation of North America, said Homeland Security advised it to be on a look out for suspicious packages "that can be larger than a shoebox" from Yemen and other Middle East locations. The SCN sent out alerts to all Jewish communities and about 70 percent of synagogues across the United States. Security was heightened at all Jewish institutions in the Chicago area.

Authorities also searched three UPS planes and their cargo at Newark and Philadelphia airports, and an Emirates Airlines passenger jet was escorted down the coast to New York by American fighter jets. No explosives were found aboard those planes.

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Al-Qaida active in Yemen
The United States has stepped up its training, intelligence and military aid to Yemen after the failed Christmas Day plot, for which the Yemeni wing of al-Qaida claimed responsibility.

Al-Awlaki, who now lives in hiding in Yemen and is an al-Qaida leader there, is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Detroit airliner bombing last Christmas Day.

The accused Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has told U.S. investigators he received the explosive device and training from al-Qaida militants in Yemen.

Yemen has been trying to quell a resurgent branch of al-Qaida, which has stepped up attacks on Western and government targets in the Arabian Peninsula country.

One official said intelligence personnel had been monitoring a suspected plot for days. The packages in England and Dubai were discovered late Thursday after a foreign intelligence service picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., this official said.

The Associated Press and Reuters, as well as NBC's Pete Williams and Robert Windrem, contributed to this report.

Video: Devices were in laser printers

  1. Transcript of: Devices were in laser printers

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The president of the United States called what happened today a credible threat, but here's the evidence. A couple of toner cartridges, the kinds we all have in our offices, with at least some form, some amount of explosives on them apparently, sent via cargo from Yemen , addressed to some synagogues in Chicago . A strange series of events that received blanket news coverage today. As we learned, several UPS cargo jets were stopped and searched at a number of US and UK airports. This story stretches from Yemen to Great Britain , across the Atlantic to Philly , Newark , New York , Chicago . Our justice corespondent Pete Williams has been following it all day. He's in our Washington newsroom to start us off. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian , so far there is no indication that any hazardous packages actually made their way into the US. In fact, it's still not clear tonight what these packages were intended to do or what the target could have been. By 10:30 last night, the US security community was alarmed enough to notify the president. Acting on a tip from an overseas intelligence service , authorities in England searched for and found a suspicious package addressed to the US. Inside a photocopier toner cartridge, obviously tampered with, protruding wires, a crudely attached circuit board coated with white powder and containing explosives.

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: This is Stephanie Gosk at the East Midlands Airport , where that package was intercepted. A freight distribution building was evacuated and the package examined before being turned over to the London police for further testing.

    P. WILLIAMS: A second similar package, also addressed to the US, was intercepted in Dubai in the Persian Gulf . Both were sent from Yemen , and US officials suspect they originated with the same al-Qaeda group that was behind the attempted bombing of the US passenger jet on Christmas Day .

    TAMRON HALL reporting: A UPS plan searched at several US airports and in the UK after...

    After a day of intensive cable TV coverage of planes stopped and searched, the first definitive explanation came from the president himself.

    P. WILLIAMS: I want to briefly update the American people on a credible terrorist threat against our country, and the actions that we're taking with our friends and our partners to respond to it. An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material .

    President BARACK OBAMA: The packages were addressed to two Chicago locations, a Jewish community center and a synagogue, neither of which knew anything about the packages , the FBI says. As a precaution, planes carrying any cargo from Yemen were searched the moment they landed in the US, about 15 packages in all. And a passenger plane from the United Arab Emirates was escorted by fighter jets as it made a scheduled landing in New York because it too was carrying a package from Yemen . Nothing hazardous was found. Officials say they don't yet know precisely how the two packages were designed, though they assumed for now they were meant to detonate.

    P. WILLIAMS: The materials that were found and the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm.

    Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (United States Counterterrorism Adviser): One possibility, analysts say, is that whoever sent the packages didn't know for certain how they'd fly to the US.

    P. WILLIAMS: We shouldn't assume that cargo planes was the intended mode of transportation. They may have believed these packages would have been placed on passenger airliners.

    Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): Both UPS and Federal Express have now suspended all shipments to the US from Yemen , and British authorities stopped shipments to the UK , as well. Officials stress here that only two hazardous packages were found, both overseas, and tonight they believe they've accounted for all the packages from Yemen that were intended for delivery to the US. And also tonight the White House has now publicly acknowledged that the original intelligence information that got this all started came from Saudi Arabia . Brian :

    P. WILLIAMS: Well, Pete , devil's advocate here. A whole lot of people watching tonight may wonder why the evidence here doesn't quite match the words being used even by some of our public officials. It may not add up. And when is someone going to explain to us how these toner cartridges equal a threat to national security ?

    B. WILLIAMS: Right. What I'm actually told, Brian , is that what was sent in these packages was the entire laser printer. That was what was sent to these two addresses, but it was the toner cartridge inside the printer that had been tampered with. Now, we still don't yet know how much explosive material was in there or how there was -- how they were suppose to work. We believe it was the explosive material called PETN that was in the Richard Reid shoe bomb and also in the underwear bomber that came to Detroit on Christmas Day . But we still don't know the mechanism, how these were supposed to work, when were they supposed to go off. Those are big questions, Brian .

    P. WILLIAMS: All right. Pete Williams , who again has been reporting out this story all day in

    B. WILLIAMS:

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