WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials in September intercepted several packages containing books, papers, CDs and other household items shipped to Chicago from Yemen and considered the possibility that the parcels might have been a test run for a terrorist attack, two officials said Monday night.
Now the intelligence officials believe that the shipments, whose hour-by-hour locations could be tracked by the sender on the shippers’ websites, may have been used to plan the route and timing for two printer cartridges packed with explosives that were sent from Yemen and intercepted in Britain and Dubai on Friday.
In September, after U.S. counterterrorism agencies received information linking the packages to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network’s branch in Yemen, intelligence officers stopped the shipments in transit and searched them, said the officials, who would discuss the operation only on the condition of anonymity. They found no explosives, and the packages were permitted to continue to what appeared to be “random addresses” with no connection to the terrorist group in Chicago.
“At the time, people obviously took notice and – knowing of the terrorist group’s interest in aviation — considered the possibility that AQAP might be exploring the logistics of the cargo system,” one of the officials said, referring to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The apparent test run might have permitted the plotters to estimate when cargo planes carrying the doctored toner cartridges would be over Chicago or another city. That would conceivably enable them to set timers on the two devices to ignite explosions where they would cause the greatest damage.
The September shipments were first reported by ABC News on Monday night, which also noted that Inspire, the English-language magazine of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, recently published a picture of the Chicago skyline.
One of the officials said that when the American intelligence agents received a tip from Saudi intelligence officials last week that bombs might be on cargo flights to Chicago from Yemen, analysts “recalled the incident and factored it in to our government’s very prompt response.”
“Both events reflect solid intelligence work,” the official said.
On Monday, Germany, France and Britain said they had banned cargo shipments from Yemen, following a similar move by the United States.