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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama Speaks Out on 'Credible Terrorist Threat'

Aired October 29, 2010 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Two packages containing explosive materials discovered more than 3,000 miles apart both bound for the United States, they have sparked an international security alert rippling around the world right now.

We are following the breaking news this hour. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting.

This is what has so many people around the world so deeply concerned right now, a toner cartridge that investigators say had been tampered with along with wires to a circuit board. This was found in an airport north of London. A similar package was found at a FedEx facility in Dubai. Both originated in Yemen. Both are addressed to Chicago-area synagogues.

And we now know it was only because of a tip that authorities were able to intercept them before they reached the United States, where officials suspect al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that organization, is responsible.

As you just heard, President Obama calls this a credible terrorist threat to the United States. The big question now, was it a thwarted attack? Was it a dry run for something bigger? Are there still other packages out there that have been undetected? We are covering every angle of this breaking news this hour with CNN's global resources.

Our CNN international correspondent Dan Rivers is now at the East Midlands Airport north of London where that one package with the toner cartridge that had been tampered with was found.

Set the scene, Dan, for us. What are the authorities in the U.K. saying?

DAN RIVERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are getting a lot more information, Wolf, from the U.S. side of this investigation than we are here in the U.K.

Let me set the scene of where we are. This is the cargo area of East Midlands Airport. This package was found in a cargo distribution center at the end of this row. This whole area had been sealed off earlier today. You can see now there is traffic and indeed cargo lorries moving along, trucks coming along this road. So it's all back to normal now.

But that package was found there after an intelligence tipoff that had been posted in Yemen by a man with known connections to terrorists. The police took it over to this area here, which is just on the edge of the runway here, investigated it, made it safe.

It has now been flown by helicopter down to Fort Halstead, which is where the police forensics experts are continuing to investigate it to exactly ascertain what it is. We know from the president that it has got explosive material contained within it, but we don't know much more than that, how it would work in practice, if it was some sort of timing device or exactly the mechanics of how it would work.

So we hope to find out more about that. And, of course, this is just one of two packages that we now know that was sent, the other sent from the same man in Yemen ended up in Dubai. Again it was intercepted before it could get either here or onwards to Chicago.

So this really is by fluke that it happened to be here in East Midlands, where it was intercepted. It was destined for Chicago, of course, but because of the quick work of the authorities in the U.S., alerting the police there, they managed to get hold of it and now they are looking into the mechanics of what this device is, how it would work and if they can get any clues about who made it.

BLITZER: What kind of aircraft was flown from Yemen to where you are at this airport north of London that contained this box?

RIVERS: I don't have the information about the specific aircraft here, but, you know, I imagine it was one of the ones that we have seen taking off and landing since we have been here, a jetliner coming in from Yemen, possibly via the Gulf.

But I think that, you know, one thing to take away from this, Wolf, is that it does prove, if this was a viable device that could have exploded, that this device did get into the air into an airplane and land here. So that poses major questions for the security screening procedures in Yemen at the airport in Sanaa. How does that get through? Presumably, they can't scan and search physically every single parcel that is sent, but we now know that, clearly, there will be a massive focus on anything coming out of Yemen.

You know, I have been told by security sources just this week before this unfolded that they are very concerned about Yemen. They remain concerned about it. There have been -- flights have been suspended between the U.K. and Yemen for some time. That is one of the major focuses now of counterterrorism work here is on Yemen as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia, but specifically now Yemen is obviously, you know, right up there at the top of the list.

BLITZER: But have authorities there said that this was a nonstop flight from Sanaa, Yemen, to the United Kingdom; it did not make any intermediary stops along the way? Is that your understanding, Dan?

RIVERS: That is my understanding. But we are getting information that is being contradicted in the U.S. here. We were initially told here that there was no explosive material in this device. It was effectively like an IED but without the explosives in it. Now, that obviously was contradicted by what the president said.

And now there is a bit of a sort of backpedaling here, saying that on further investigation, there was explosive material in there. So, we have not got information as to whether it was a direct flight or if it too went via Dubai.

But it must be pointed out that, as we understand it, the device or the package that was found in Dubai was sent by FedEx. And this was sent was UPS, so two different companies involved.

BLITZER: Two U.S. companies, we should point out as well.

All right, Dan, we will stay in close touch with you.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She is working the story. She's getting additional information as well.

What is the latest, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just an update from the Transportation Security Administration.

You know that we saw earlier today some planes taken aside in Newark and Philadelphia because there was a belief, according to law enforcement, that there might be packages on board there from Yemen. There was no intelligence that they were dangerous, but they wanted to check them out.

The TSA says out of an abundance of caution they also emptied out the UPS cargo facilities at both of those airports, when they moved the planes off to a remote location. They say they have completed the sweeps of the planes and the cargo and everything has been cleared now at those locations.

The big overarching question, a couple of them, but one that you mentioned, Wolf, is, what were these devices intended to do?

Here is a little bit of what John Brennan, the president's counterterror adviser, had to say at a briefing earlier this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It does appear that there were explosive materials in both of these packages, that they were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of an attack. The forensic analysis is under way. We are relying heavily and working closely with our partners in this regard.

But, clearly, from the initial observations, the initials analysis that's done, that the materials that were found and the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: But later in that briefing, Mr. Brennan indicated that this may have been a dry run, that there were many different scenarios that the government is currently looking at to try to determine exactly what they were, what they were intended to do.

In the meantime, as I mentioned, this search is on for more than a dozen packages. I was told the number may be around 13 that came out of Yemen. They have found some of them, we are told. They have turned out to be nothing dangerous, but they are still on the hunt for others and we could see some other searches going on in the days to come.

In addition, security has been stepped up a bit in some locations. Specifically they are doing more cargo screening and we are told by multiple sources that they have halted shipments of packages out of Yemen to the United States while they get to the bottom of this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, good. That is a decision that both UPS and FedEx made, no more cargo shipments out of Yemen, at least for now.

All right, Jeanne, stand by.

Dan Lothian is our White House correspondent.

Dan, these two packages were supposed to go to two synagogues in the Chicago area. And I take it, it's just a coincidence that the president was supposed to be in Chicago this weekend as well.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, no one connecting any of the dots there at all, the president supposed to be in Chicago over the weekend, in addition to that, a trip to Philadelphia as well.

And the last word we have gotten -- I just heard from a top aide here at the White House -- is no changes whatsoever in the president's schedule. As you know, leading up to the midterm elections, not only this weekend, but tonight, the president will be making a campaign stop in Virginia.

And so the latest word, again, is that no changes in the president's schedule because of this terror threat.

Going back a little bit, though, Wolf, to just take you how the president first learned of this plot, last night at 10:30 was when John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser, alerted the president, updated him, not only at 10:30, but throughout the night, according to White House officials. He kept the president apprised of what was going on with this investigation.

John Brennan really took the lead here, reaching out to all levels of the counterterrorism community, not within the administration, but also with British officials, and then reaching out to the Yemeni president as well.

One of the questions that I asked today at the briefing, Wolf, was did they have any clue at all here within the administration that this kind of attack was in the works, using a cargo plane, using packages on a cargo plane? John Brennan pointing out that they have always been concerned not only about passenger aircraft, but also cargo planes, although he did not specify whether or not they knew a specific plot like this one was under way, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan, thanks very much. We will stay in close touch with you.

Let's bring in Fran Townsend and Paul Cruickshank. They're our terrorism analysts.

Fran, you had the job that John Brennan now has, as the adviser to the president on counterterrorism and homeland security.

Based on the phone calls, the briefings, the conferences, the emergency meetings they have had in the White House Situation Room, it sounds to me like this is a big deal for the U.S. government.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, it is absolutely a big deal.

Very unusual by the way, Wolf -- we haven't mentioned this -- to have the president become the briefer in chief. The notion of putting the president out this early while it is really still unfolding is pretty extraordinary. For one thing, we always say the initial facts are never clear. They often change. And so it is a little bit dangerous to have the president out there.

Clearly, they do believe this was a real plot. And they pulled -- John Brennan pulled the community together and so they are doing all the things you would expect.

BLITZER: And if you see that picture, you see the president's national security adviser there, Tom Donilon.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

BLITZER: But I don't know if you can see it. John Brennan is -- to his left, to John Brennan's left. On the other side, you will see Leon Panetta, who is the CIA director, called into the White House Situation Room for this briefing.

The assumption has always been, Paul, that al Qaeda, whether the old al Qaeda or the al Qaeda organization in the Arabian Peninsula, one of their goals is to go after the U.S. economy. And if that is their goal in this particular incident, you know that international cargo shipments are going to become more complicated, more difficult and more expensive now because of the added security that presumably will come into play.

If that was their goal, to try to attack the U.S. economy, they have scored a couple points just by this. PAUL CRUICKSHANK, FELLOW, CENTER ON LAW AND SECURITY: That's is absolutely right. They are going after the points of maximum vulnerability.

They're also trying to get a lot of media attention. They have already succeeded in getting a lot of media attention. And the fact they have gone after synagogues, well, that plays very well to al Qaeda's base. They are deeply anti-Semitic, Wolf.

BLITZER: And it shows also that there is an American connection. If they are addressing specific synagogues in Chicago, then presumably, there are some Americans there in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula organization, if in fact they were responsible for this, as U.S. officials suspect, that may have some first-hand information about locations of synagogues in Chicago.

All right, stand by, guys. We're going to continue our breaking news coverage.

Brian Todd is standing by as well. Brian has got some new information about cargo shipments coming in out of the United States. He is over at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C.

Brian, stand by.

Our coverage will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Security for cargo flights coming into the United States about to be beefed-up as a result of what has happened today, two devices apparently discovered in the United Kingdom and Dubai, both, according to President Obama, containing explosive material, both supposed to go to synagogues in the Chicago area.

Brian Todd is over at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C.

Brian, I know you have been looking for some time into security for cargo flights, as opposed to commercial passenger flights. Talk a little bit about what you have learned over these many months and how this plays into what is going on today.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this incident does shed some light on the cargo screening system used by the U.S. and its allies. It is a network that may not be completely airtight, but in this case it could have prevented a disaster.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It was an intelligence tip, not a random check, that led to the discovery of the suspicious package at the airport in Britain. That is according to British police sources.

One of the world's top air security experts says the contents, a manipulated toner cartridge, and the origin of the package had to have set off alarms.

(on camera): Some things about this particular shipment just didn't seem right to you?

RAFI RON, CEO, NEW AGE SECURITY SOLUTIONS: Yes. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Yemen is not known to be an exporting country for the printers ink, certainly not to the United States. So I think there is already something in the nature of the shipment that I would say supposed to draw our attention.

TODD (voice-over): Rafi Ron, former top Israeli air security chief who now advises the Boston and San Francisco airports, says packages in cargo planes are not screened as tightly as those in passenger aircraft. Not every package on a cargo plane is X-rayed.

Ron says that is because terrorists typically don't want to bring down cargo planes. But if the intended targets are elsewhere, those procedures could change, at least temporarily.

(on camera): Homeland Security officials say, because of this incident, we will see heightened screening of cargo at most major airports, more explosive trace detection, more use of imaging technology. Rafi Ron says areas like this in the U.S. and elsewhere also need more security, the perimeters around the cargo loading areas and where the plane are, because even though they have security, they are much more out in the open.

(voice-over): But a crucial screening system is in place. It is called the Known Shipper program. Officials at the TSA and UPS tell us it is basically an intelligence-sharing network for cargo.

Government security agencies around the world work with private companies, businesses and the transporters like UPS to track everything about a given package.

RON: It requires that the information to be required for every shipment on the source of the shipment, the various entities that handle or had access to the shipment and so on. So, the Known Shipper program is a very powerful program when it is properly implemented.

TODD: Known Shipper is a voluntarily program, but according to Ron and an official with UPS, if a company is not part of that program, its packages gets screened more tightly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Did the Known Shipper program help detect these packages? When I asked a UPS official that, he said he could not give that information, but he said UPS is part of that program. And he said this incident illustrates that what was in place worked -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, even if this shipped package, if any shipped package does not necessarily contain explosive material, there are other materials that can get through and also be deadly; isn't that right?

TODD: That's right.

Rafi Ron said that there are materials that can get through that can cause fires, even small fires. He says that chemicals, agricultural products can get shipped through. And those can sometimes be harder to detect, so those are things that officials are going to have to look out for.

BLITZER: Brian Todd over at Dulles Airport outside of Washington -- Brian, thanks very much.

We are covering the breaking news for our viewers in the United States and around the world. When we come back, we are going to Chicago. That's where these two synagogues are located, supposedly the destination for these explosive devices.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right, this is just coming in.

A knowledgeable U.S. source now says that the tip, the tip on these suspicious packages that were found in the U.K. and Dubai containing explosive materials, the initial tip to the U.S. came from the Saudis, came from Saudi Arabia.

Let's discuss this for a moment with Fran Townsend and Paul Cruickshank.

There is good cooperation, intelligence cooperation on terrorism- related issues between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but I take it the Saudis are well-plugged-in into what is going on in Yemeni.

TOWNSEND: Absolutely.

Let's remember, the Saudi Mabahith, their internal intelligence service, the chief of that is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Prince Muhammad was the subject of an assassination attempt of by the bombmaker who also made the underwear bomb of Abdulmutallab.

This is the guy that Peter Bergen talked about earlier. Is this the same bombmaker? Saudi Arabia has got the most capable counterterrorism service in the region. They are the best-plugged-in and most knowledgeable about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And so it is really should not be surprising to us that they would have access to this kind of information and work closely enough with the Americans to pass it.

BLITZER: Because earlier U.S. officials would say the tip came from an ally. And I suspected maybe the ally was Yemen. We also suspected Saudi Arabia.

But now a knowledgeable U.S. source is telling us the Saudis gave the U.S. the tip.

CRUICKSHANK: And two weeks ago, the Saudis gave the French a tip that an attack was imminent over there, and the French were treating that very, very seriously, Wolf. So it may be the same sort of intelligence stream that is coming in both to France and now to the United States.

BLITZER: Because the tip to the French was not from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but the old al Qaeda supposedly was going after some targets in France.

CRUICKSHANK: It was I believe both al Qaeda the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but that specific Saudi intelligence related to al Qaeda in the Arabian...

BLITZER: Because bin Laden himself put out an audiotape saying they wanted to go after France because they were banning the burqa.

CRUICKSHANK: Yes, seemed to have a threat to France both from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also al Qaeda in Pakistan. They're teaming up to threaten the West and now to threaten the United States.

BLITZER: How coordinated are these various al Qaeda-related organizations?

CRUICKSHANK: It depends. There's some very strong personal ties sometimes. Sometimes the ties are weaker. The North African affiliate, for example, is perhaps a bit more weakly tied to al Qaeda central. But Yemen and Pakistan, those two leaderships, there are stronger and stronger ties, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys. We are only beginning to uncover what is going on.

More information is coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We will go to Chicago when we come back. That is where these two synagogues are located where the two targets of what you are seeing right there, these improvised explosive devices.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We are following the breaking news involving terrorism, fresh terror concerns in the United States, indeed around the world after a tip helped international authorities intercept two packages containing explosive materials.

CNN has just learned that that tip came from Saudi Arabia. The packages were from Yemen and addressed to Chicago synagogues. One package was discovered at a British airport. It contained a tampered toner cartridge, a circuit board, wires and explosive material. A similar package as found at a FedEx facility in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

President Obama called this a credible threat against the United States. Officials in the U.S. believe al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is responsible. There is growing concern not only that other packages may still be out there, but that this could a dry run for something even more disturbing.

We are all over this story. We have resources, CNN resources, around the world working sources. We're bringing you the information as soon as we vet it and can confirm it to our viewers. Let's go to Chicago right now. CNN's Brooke Baldwin is standing by outside one of the largest synagogues in Chicago.

I want to be precise. Brooke, we don't know if the synagogue where you're standing at right now is one of those synagogues targeted. I take it we don't yet know the names of the two synagogues targeted by these explosive devices?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We don't know yet, Wolf. There are two Chicago synagogues could be in the city here where I am along north Lake Shore Drive or out in the suburbs.

But as you mentioned this is Temple Shalom, and the biggest synagogue in all of the city of Chicago. And clearly, in speaking to these folks, at least behind closed doors, they're saying absolutely they're on high alert for some of these packages that could potentially be suspicious, but they are not being alarmists.

I want to show you a piece of video. All this talk about these cargo planes and UPS. In sitting out here in the last half hour, we saw a UPS truck pull up. There was no security here, and the driver hopped out and went into synagogue and it appeared business as usual.

I spoke with a father who was walking out of the synagogue at that exact moment. He had two little boys he was walking with, and I asked him, you know, "Are you at all frightened that perhaps your synagogue, perhaps a synagogue in Chicago was targeted?" And he said absolutely he's concerned.

I followed up, "Would this change your day-to-day life? Would this change your, perhaps, your course of worship as services begin tonight at 6:15 local time?" And he said he hopes not.

We're here, Wolf. We're on top of the story, at least on the Chicago angle. We'll try to talk to some of these people as they continue in for some of these services at 6:15 to see how this may change for them and their level, perhaps, of fear. We'll wait to find out, but again, 6:15 services going on as planned.

BLITZER: All right. Brooke, stand by. We're going to get back to you.

All right. Multiple news organizations are now reporting that the explosives in these two devices found in the United Kingdom and Dubai. The explosives were PETN. That's a specific explosive with a history.

Let's bring in Fran Townsend and Paul Cruikshank to discuss for a moment. PETN was the same explosive that was used in that Detroit Christmas Day bombing that was thwarted.

FRAN TOWNSEND, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: That's right. Not only was it the Christmas Day bomber, but remember, this -- this was the same bomb maker that made the bomb that was used to attempt to assassinate Muhammad bin Naif, the head of the Saudi Rabaheth (ph), the intelligence service. And we just learned that it's the Saudis who gave us the information about the packages.

Also, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, al Qaeda-related, also used PETN in his shoe when he attempted to blow up that airliner. This is a real al Qaeda-type signature.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, because Jane Harman, Congresswoman Jane Harman, is joining us right now, as well. She's a member of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence.

I take it, Congresswoman, you've been briefed on this. Can you confirm that the explosives were PETN? Have they told you that?

REP. JANE HARMAN (D-CA), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: Well, I just learned that, but I think there is -- it is a reasonable guess that the Al-Astri (ph) brothers who are the same bomb makers made the Abdulmutallab bomb, a bomb that was to kill the Saudi leader, were the -- were -- were possibly the makers of these two IEDs. They remain at large in the hinterlands of Yemen.

And I have long said that Yemen is ground zero in terms of intended attacks or inspired attacks against the United States. The Yemeni government and the Yemeni intelligence service are cooperating with us, and that's the good news.

But the bad news is that it's a very poor country. We could call it a failing state. There are 150,000 little villages outside of the capital of Sanaa, and there's reason to believe that, with a couple of civil wars going on and so forth, that it's easy to hide out. And they seem to be luring bad guys there and getting bad stuff out.

And this is a big success story for our government. We had credible and reliable intelligence, and we acted on it promptly. And we found two IEDs in two different parcel cargo holds. And we intercepted them well before they reached the United States, and their intended targets, two synagogues in Chicago.

BLITZER: So, we now know what that white powder, that substance that was found in the U.K. and in Dubai was, the PETN, which does have this white powder.

Is it your understanding that, if these two boxes had reached these two different synagogues in Chicago, they would have exploded upon opening these devices, these boxes or there were timing mechanisms to detonate them? Do you have a working understanding yet, Congresswoman, how they would have gone off?

HARMAN: I think they were different. One of them could have been detonated by a cell phone and the other by a timer. I don't think either of those detonators has been found yet or it had not when I last intercepted this information. I was briefed by John Pistole , who is the head of our Transportation Security Administration, TSA, which is part of the Homeland Security Department. He's a 27-year FBI veteran. He has been all over this material, and he's very well qualified for the role that he has. And I'm very impressed by the actions our government has taken to date.

BLITZER: Yes, and we're just getting this information in, as well, Congresswoman, that the size and the shape of this planned printed circuit board on this device is very similar to a handset cell-phone-type device, suggesting that a cell phone could have detonated these two IEDs, these improvised devices, causing God knows what kind of damage at these synagogues. Why go after the synagogues in Chicago? Have authorities suggested what the motive was there?

HARMAN: Well, I think we're just starting the investigation, but in my own congressional district, where I am now in Torrance, California, a local domestic terror plot was uncovered. And one of their intended targets was a local synagogue. Jewish sites are targets of these attacks. You know the rhetoric of some of these folks.

I think we have to learn a lot more about who they are, but there's no question that these two devices that were found in the cargo holds of two different planes in two different locations were genuinely IEDs to be remotely detonated, and if they had gone off someplace, they could have caused a lot of damage.

BLITZER: And officials told you flatly that the explosives were, in fact, PETN? Is that right?

HARMAN: No, I've heard that on your broadcast. I learned other aspects of what they were and I have revealed as I just said that one of them probably would have been detonate by a cell phone and the other by a timer, and those devices, at least of a few hours ago, have not been found.

BLITZER: All right.

HARMAN: I'm not surprised to hear that it's PETN, because that is a signature, as Fran Townsend just said, of the folks we're talking about, who I would think are reasonably likely to turn out to be the people who made these two bombs.

BLITZER: Looks like PETN is the explosive of choice for the al Qaeda organizations, whether al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula or the old bin Laden al Qaeda, some of these other splinter groups.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.

HARMAN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me just bring in Paul Cruikshank in for a moment. You know about this PETN. How much damage could a device like this in a toner cartridge with a circuit, let's say a cell phone, had detonated, it arrived at the synagogue in Chicago, how much -- how much damage could it have done?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Quite a lot. With Nic Robertson we worked to get a British scientist to demonstrate this for CNN, and we actually videoed them explaining a small amount of the white powdery substance, and there was a very, very large explosion. It's very, very difficult to detect, and it is the signature of al Qaeda thing they're using more and more, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Obviously, a worrisome development, these multiple reports we're getting now that PETN was the explosive found in these two devices in Dubai and the United Kingdom. We're going to the United Kingdom when we come back. Our breaking news coverage will continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right. We reported a little while ago that Saudi Arabia provided the United States with the initial information that led to the thwarting of this terrorist attack that was in the works.

We're now getting this statement from the White House, a statement from John Brennan, who's President Obama's special adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism. "The United States is grateful to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the assistance in developing the information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen. Their assistance, along with the hard work of the U.S. counterterrorism community, the United Kingdom, the UAE, and other friends and partners helped make it possible to increase our vigilance and identify the suspicious activities in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom."

That statement just coming in from John Brennan, the advisor to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

Let's go to London right now. Richard Quest is getting additional information.

What are you learning, Richard?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, from sources in the UAE, it's now becoming clear that the East Midlands device was found first and, as a result of that, they then went, knowing the different courier companies had been used, UPS and FedEx. They went to the FedEx warehouse in UAE, and that's where they discovered the UAE explosive device, which I am led to believe is -- the exact words of my source, it's an explosive device with sophisticated wiring that is well hidden.

It's believed to be larger than maybe the East Midlands one, also being a printer, is actually what they're suggesting is the Dubai device.

On the question of the Emirates plane, Wolf, it's my understanding tonight that actually there's no package on board the Emirates plane from Yemen, that the -- it was an abundance of caution that led the jets to escort that triple seven of Emirates two oh one to New York this evening. And Emirates have confirmed to me tonight, and this is going to be of great assurance to anybody traveling on the airline, that all onboard cargo destined for the United States is pre-screened in Dubai. So all cargo is prescreened in Dubai in accordance with the TSA, and the homeland security regulations. And that would seem to bear out the fact that there was no -- there was no Yemeni package on board the aircraft. That's what I'm hearing tonight both from Emirates, and from the UAE.

BLITZER: All right, Richard. Thanks very much. Very important information. CNN has incredible resources around the world working the story. We'll take another quick break. Mohammed Jamjoom is standing by. He was just in Yemen. He's getting new information, as well. The breaking news coverage will continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Two suspicious devices both containing explosive material. We're now told PETN found in the United Kingdom and in Dubai supposed to go to two synagogues in Chicago.

Mohammed Jamjoom, our correspondent was just in Yemen and I know, Mohammed, you've been in touch with authorities in Yemen today. What are they saying in terms of their willingness, their ability, if you will, a support country, to cooperate with the United States in this kind of sophisticated terror investigation?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what Yemeni officials have reiterated to me again and again over the last few days, the last few weeks and even today is they said one of the most significant signs that they are really trying to go after al Qaeda in a big way is that they are asking for help. They've been asking the U.S. for help. They've been asking the U.K. for help.

Today they came out very quickly after this news broke and said that they are launching an official investigation. They are counting on the cooperation of the U.S. and the U.K. and other governments, because they want to get this under control. That's a dramatic change in the tone that they were saying in the last year.

You know, when it became clear that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was a bigger problem than the Yemeni government had originally thought it was, the Yemeni government was saying, "Look, we've got this under control. Don't worry about it."

In the past several months they've said, "No, we need help. We need military aid. We need training from these foreign governments."

Now I was in Yemen just last month. I can tell you, I spoke to many officials. They expressed to me repeatedly how concerned they are about the problem of al Qaeda. The officials were telling me there's really only about 400 active members there, but the fact of the matter is these members have learned from the mistakes of al Qaeda in Iraq. They're playing by a new playbook now. They're going after the government directly. They've been very bold in announcing that they're trying to undermine the government going after the president. They are stepping up their attacks. They are reinvigorated. It's a new kind of insurgency there. And the Yemeni officials are now telling the international community, "Please step in. Please help us. You can't afford to have us become a failed state" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting for us. And no doubt that most of those 400 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists are Yemeni or others, but there are some who are Americans, including the American-born cleric, al-Awlaki, that we've all been watching very closely.

We'll take a quick break. Nic Robertson is standing by. He's got new information on this suspected explosive in these two devices, PETN, the damage potentially it could have done to those two synagogues in Chicago.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We've got more breaking news on this investigation into these two devices that were found in the UK and Dubai, explosive devices. Fran Townsend is here.

We know that the White House has now formally thanked Saudi Arabia for giving the U.S. the initial information that led to the thwarting of this plot. What have you learned?

TOWNSEND: Well, it's interesting, Wolf. John Brennan's statement, the assistant to the president for counterterrorism, said that the Saudis had provided information that underscored the imminence of the threat. I've now talked to a source who confirmed to me that the information the Saudis provided to U.S. officials were the actual tracking numbers on the packages, which is what allowed them to find the package in Dubai and in the United Kingdom so quickly.

BLITZER: Because we know UPS and FedEx are excellent with their tracking numbers. They know where these packages are at any time.

Stand by. Nic Robertson is joining us from London right now.

You've done a lot of investigation, a lot of work on PETN, this explosive material that we now believe was used in these two devices that were found in Dubai and in Britain. Tell us about the potential damage PETN could have done to those synagogues in Chicago, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we ran some tests earlier this year with a scientist here in Britain who's done a lot of work with counterterrorism officials with this explosive. If you get an amount of explosive that just would fit the top of this pen, it's enough to blow a hole in a metal plate. That would be the fuselage of an aircraft, for example. That gives you an idea of how powerful it is, Wolf.

In this situation, we don't know exactly what the intended target was, but an amount that would fit into a toner or something larger, a printer we've heard, that would be very devastating. It is a very, very powerful explosive once detonated, Wolf.

BLITZER: And it could be detonated by -- with a cell phone. It seems like that's -- that could have possibly been used to detonate these two devices.

ROBERTSON: That does appear to be the case, here, Wolf. I mean, the piece of information that we're now putting together, that does appear to tie up.

I think what's interesting here, as we heard during John Brennan's press conference there, talk about this, working on this really hard for the last 24 hours. And when we hear Fran Townsend talk about how the Saudis helped with the tracking numbers of these devices, they were in motion. It's so clear now that the very short period of time that intelligence, counterterrorism operatives had to work in to get to those -- to get to that device that was found at East Midlands Airport, a matter of literally a number of hours. This has all unfolded so very, very quickly, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nic. Thanks very much. Nic's all over this story, as well.

We'll take another quick break. More of the coverage right after this.

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BLITZER: We're continuing our coverage of the breaking news of this terror -- terror plot that was thwarted today in the UK and in Dubai. Fran Townsend is here. Paul Cruickshank is here.

If the Saudis had not provided this initial information, the tracking numbers of these two boxes containing what's reportedly to be this PETN, this powerful explosive device, and it would have continued, what would have happened?

TOWNSEND: Well, it would have arrived at these Jewish houses of worship, and it would have exploded and either killed some, maimed others. I mean, the thing we take away from this, it's fascinating to me, Wolf. The Saudis came to us after the assassination attempt on Prince Muhammad bin Naif.

BLITZER: Who's the head of their intelligence service, really.

TOWNSEND: Right. And explained the bomb that was used. That's the same bomb that later was used by the Christmas day attempted bomber, Abdulmutallab. He's now the Saudi service comes to us with the tracking numbers. It underscores the importance of that relationship and how strong it is to this day in terms of counterterrorism cooperation.

BLITZER: And there's a self-interest that the Saudis have, because as we just noted, they've been the target of these organizations, as well.

CRUICKSHANK: They're fighting the same fight, this organization al Qaeda in Yemen was originally really in Saudi Arabia. They transplanted to Yemen. The Saudis are engaged in the same fight against these terrorists as the United States, Wolf.

BLITZER: So why go after these synagogues, these two synagogues in Chicago? What would be the point? What would be the message they would be trying to -- to send?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, this is -- goes -- it's very popular for al Qaeda's base. They're deeply anti-Semitic. They're likely to really be a rally around the al Qaeda flag, sort of attack al Qaeda with a lot of negative publicity that's been targeting Muslims, to target Jews in America from that perspective is a big propaganda success, Wolf.

BLITZER: How worried should the American Jewish community be, Fran, right now? Because you worked as the homeland security adviser to President Bush, and I know there have been threats in the past, but is this a source of major concern right now?

TOWNSEND: You know, unfortunately, Wolf, it's a continuing source of concern. We work very closely with the American Jewish community and community leaders. They have very strict protocols about how they screen mail, how they secure their facilities, and for good reason. Because they're the subject of this threat, and it will continue. Because as Paul says, of the deeply anti-Semitic ideology.

BLITZER: Do you think -- is there any indication that there are other suspicious packages you think out there right now? Or is this over with, this specific plot?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, the concern is always that there's more out there, that there are going to be more attempts. This is a struggle that continues every day, Wolf.

BLITZER: And it's not going away. Let me thank both of you, Fran Townsend, Paul Cruickshank.

CNN's coverage is going to continue. We're not going to leave this story. There are enormous implications, not only for the United States but for folks all over the world.

We want to thank all of our reporters and producers who helped us better appreciate what's going on. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" picks up the story right now.