Fighter jets intercepted a United Arab Emirates passenger flight over Canadian airspace and escorted it to John F. Kennedy International Airport Friday due to an "abundance of caution" after authorities on Thursday night discovered two packages containing explosives bound for the United States from Yemen.
The two packages, which were addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago, were intercepted in the United Kingdom and Dubai aboard cargo planes.
In a news conference Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama called the incident a "credible terrorist threat against our country."
U.S. officials said preliminary tests found the overseas packages contained pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a strong chemical compound used in the foiled Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet in Detroit. PETN was also used by the so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid on a plane that was eventually diverted to Boston.
The discoveries led to extraordinary measures by Homeland Security officials to search cargo planes coming into the country on Friday, but no harmful substances were found.
Officials searched the Dubai airliner at JFK and its cargo was examined and cleared. Federal officials said the plane was escorted as a precaution, since some of the cargo originated from Yemen.
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is gaining strength in Yemen, is under investigation.
Obama stressed on Friday that the organization has not yet been linked the threats.
"We will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this al-Qaida affiliate," said the president.
"Outside of the Afghan-Pakistan area, where the al-Qaeda core and senior leadership reside, I would say that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active, operational franchise of al-Qaida and this deserves a lot of our attention," said Brennan.
In a statement, Brennan said that Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and UAE are aiding the investigation on the threat from Yemen. Obama said that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and his government are also investigating AQAP.
"At this stage, the American people should know, the counterterrorism professionals are taking this threat very seriously, and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to insure our security," said Obama. "The American people should be confident that we will not waiver in our resolve to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates and will root out violent extremism in all of its forms."
Just after 3 p.m. Friday, Emirates Flight 201 from Dubai was escorted after passing through Canadian airspace by two Canadian fighter jets and then two U.S. military fighter jets, out of what Brennan called an "abundance of caution." The flight landed safely at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, where the passengers deplaned. The flight was then examined by law enforcement officials.
Some passengers aboard that flight told NY1 they were not aware of the situation until they talked with reporters at the airport. They said the landing process only felt slightly longer than normal.
"The only thing the pilot said was that there was heightened security and that we were going to take longer to disembark than usual," said a Flight 201 passenger.
"Each and every bag was checked. I have been to America a lot of times before, but this time I though that's how they do it in New York," said another passenger.
"We were held in the plane for like an extra 20 minutes or so. They didn't tell us [why], they said, 'Everyone take their seats and wait,'" said a third passenger. "It was fine, everyone was just sitting around. I mean, it's a 14-hour flight, so everyone was kind of exhausted."
However, those who were waiting for the passengers in the JFK terminal were on edge.
"I'm very much worried about this country that we are living in and the people on the plane as well," said a man in the terminal.
Earlier Friday, three UPS cargo planes – one in Newark and two in Philadelphia – were searched for packages, as well as a delivery truck that made stops all across the city ending up in MetroTech in Brooklyn. That's where the bomb squad took a close look at an envelope from Yemen.
The envelope arrived on a plane that landed at JFK Airport and was addressed to JPMorgan Chase's location at MetroTech.
So far, all packages found in the United States on Friday have been cleared for explosives.
In light of Friday's events, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has reached out to Jewish community institutions in the U.S. to urge them to "increase mailroom security and to contact law enforcement immediately if they see anything suspicious."
Senator Charles Schumer told NY1 that no New York City landmarks were specifically targeted in this latest wave of bombing attempts.
Nevertheless, the New York City Police Department increased its Friday patrols in the city.
A mobile command center was set up near the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic Movement Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and police also made their presence felt at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.