And security sources advising President Barack Obama believe the group behind it is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a regional terrorist group known for targeting Western interests in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
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Formed in 2009, it is the same group blamed by Mr Obama for sponsoring an attempt to bomb a US airliner on Christmas Day.
They are believed to have dispatched Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up the plane en route to Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.
Just five days ago al Qaeda’s American mouthpiece urged would-be terrorists in a new video to act alone instead of trying to join cells attempting 9/11-style spectacular strikes.
Californian Adam Gadahn urged individual violent jihad in a 40-minute tape, which endorsed an al Qaeda ally’s call last week for sympathisers to mimic the attempted bombing over Detroit, the killings in Fort Hood, Texas in which a US army major shot dead 13 people and the Times Square plot in May.
A week previously, AQAP, released a 74-page online magazine called “Inspire” with essays by Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki urging individual jihad. US authorities had linked him to Fort Hood shooting suspect Major Nidal Hasan.
Officials were also considering whether al-Awlaki played a role in the December 25 plot.
Unlike the latest plot, which was said to have been uncovered after security sources in the Middle East tipped off intelligence services, the December 25 plan involving a Northwest Airlines passenger jet en route from Amsterdam, was an attempt to ignite explosives hidden in underwear.
Eleven days ago there was a warning of a terror threat from al Qaeda against Europe from Saudi intelligence service sources. It was thought to be linked to arrests announced in previous days of senior AQAP officials.
Even before the latest plot, the CIA believed that AQAP was a larger security threat to the United States than al Qaeda Central in Pakistan.
And John Brennan, a senior US counter-terrorism official and an aide to Mr Obama, has been talking with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh about the threat posed by AQAP and how to address it.
The AQAP offshoot was created from a core of Yemeni militants and Saudi former inmates of the Guantanamo Bay internment camp who returned to terrorism despite going through a rehabilitation programme.
Earlier this year, the US approved $150 million to train and equip Yemeni forces and up to 50 US special operations troops are now training Yemen’s military personnel.
Earlier this month AQAP claimed responsibility for an grenade attack on a diplomatic car that left a British Embassy staff member and two bystanders injured.
A rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle about two miles from the British Embassy, the second attack on a British diplomatic vehicle in the city in six months.
The US National Counterterrorism Centre believes AQAP carried out suicide attacks on a Yemeni oil facility in 2006 and mortar attacks two years later on the US Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, Yemeni military complexes, the Italian Embassy and the Yemeni presidential compound.
Later in 2008, security sources said AQAP detonated two car bombs outside the US Embassy in Sanaa, killing 19 people, including six of its own members.
Air freight subject to stringent screening
FREIGHT carried by air has to go through the kind of stringent checks that airline passengers on commercial flights are all too aware of.
Current security measures in the UK are regulated by the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.
This means that all air freight consignments must either be screened or originate from a Department for Transport-accredited consignor before being loaded on to an aircraft.
Listed cargo agents or in-flight supply companies are among those invited to attend a threat-assessment training course organised by the DfT’s transport security body Transec.
The course is targeted at transport industry security instructors working for airports, airlines and their agents, in-flight supplies undertakings, secure clean contractors, air cargo agents, ship and port operators and their agents, Channel Tunnel operators and railway industry trainers.
Those attending will be able to organise and conduct initial and recurrent training courses for transport security personnel in how to recognise firearms, explosives and incendiary devices.
“Cargo undergoes exactly the same kind of security checks as airline passengers do,” said David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight Global.
He went on: “If a company like UPS receives a request to send something by air they carry out a series of checks.”
Mr Learmount added: “They will check to see if the person is on any list. Before any package goes on to a plane it gets screened. In commercial flights, as soon as passengers buy tickets they are being checked. They may not know it, but they are. It’s the same with air freight.”
Mr Learmount said that freight had always been a potential target for terrorists but bombers had concentrated on passenger aircraft.