During a day of televised drama, American F-15s escorted a passenger flight from the United Arab Emirates to New York's JFK, and airports were put on high security alert as authorities swept cargo planes in the U.S., Britain, and the Middle East. Cable news programs went into overdrive early. But by the time President Obama interrupted his Friday afternoon schedule to brief journalists at the White House, it became clear that this was more than just another scare. Obama announced the discovery of explosive material—shipped from al Qaeda's Yemen branch and aimed at U.S. destinations—presenting, in his words "a credible terror threat."
The episode did the unthinkable—interrupting wall-to-wall coverage of the midterm elections. And even experienced intelligence analysts were left pondering the treacherous intersection of politics and terrorism.
"The White House clearly wants to be sure to be seen as being out in front of a story like this," said Paul Pillar, who served for three decades as a CIA analyst. While it was "extraordinary" for the president to interrupt his schedule to address reporters, it wasn't necessarily indicative of the seriousness of the threat, he said, suggesting that the administration wanted to avoid the kind of political blowback that followed the failed attack in December.
"The White House clearly wants to be sure to be seen as being out in front of a story like this."
After the so-called underwear bomber attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day, Republicans charged that the Obama administration didn't address the thwarted attack quickly enough.
"They don't want a repeat of that," said Pillar, now a security studies professor at Georgetown University.
After he was alerted to the terror threat late Thursday night by top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, Obama directed "the Department of Homeland Security and all our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack," he said.
The packages sent from Yemen were bound for "two places of Jewish worship in Chicago," he said, and had been located in Dubai and a smaller airport in Britain.
The discovery of "explosive material" may quiet the most overt partisan catcalls. Indeed, GOP Rep. Peter King, his party's ranking member on the House Committee on Homeland Security, praised the administration's response, saying "so far everything has worked the right way." But some conservatives took the occasion to hammer at Democratic candidates they felt were suspect on anti-terrorism issues. Ever since 9/11, there have frequently been flare-ups of terror anxiety close to Election Day. The pattern became so common during the Bush administration that critics protested the GOP was milking fear for votes. But no pol of either party wants to be blamed for failing to take a threat seriously—and this one comes against the backdrop of growing jitters about a possible plot of major proportions in Europe.
• What We Know About the Cargo PlotU.S. intelligence considers Yemen a prime breeding ground for terrorists, and the Central Command recently proposed a $1.2 billion military-aid program to help the government of Yemen fight al Qaeda-connected groups.
Bruce Riedel, another long-time CIA officer, said that Friday's events showed that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula "is not on the ropes." Rather, "it is the one part of al Qaeda that is thriving the best, and proven it can strike at home. Obama is going to need a more effective way to press AQAP than we have today," said Riedel, now a Brookings Institution fellow and contributor to The Daily Beast.
The White House has recently deployed Navy ships off Yemen's coast as stages for cruise-missile strikes and other sorties; American commandos are also helping train Yemen's special-ops commandos, and providing them with military equipment, including Humvees and night-vision goggles, arms and ammunition.
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, described Friday's events as "peculiar," with a modus operandi unlike most previous terrorist attacks. For one thing, the packages were reportedly mailed from Yemen, and thus likely to arouse suspicion at their destination; furthermore, they were sent through UPS and FedEx, which means the perpetrators had to fill out paperwork, he said.
But whoever had sent the packages had given thought to the timing; with the elections just days away, the president had little choice but to address it.
"It didn't seem so much like a dry run as a bid for publicity," Hoffman said. "If it was calculated to generate publicity, attention and perhaps some fear…as well as a presidential response, it was a success."