Intelligence officials are concerned about a new al-Qaeda effort to create a bomb that would go undetected through airport security, a counterterrorism official said, prompting the US to call for tighter security measures at some foreign airports.
The counterterrorism official, who would not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, declined on Wednesday to describe the kind of information that triggered the warning.
However, officials in the past have raised concerns about non-metallic explosives being surgically implanted inside a traveler’s body, designed to be undetectable in pat-downs or metal detectors.
The US has been planning for additional measures for the past month, a counterterrorism official said, adding there was no immediate threat that led to the announcement by the US Department of Homeland Security that it was requesting tighter security abroad.
US intelligence has picked up indications that bomb makers from al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate have traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there. The groups are working to perfect an explosive device that could foil airport security, according to the counterterrorism official.
US citizens and others from the West have traveled to Syria over the past year to join al-Nusra Front’s fight against the Syrian government. The fear is that fighters with a US or Western passport — and therefore subject to less stringent security screening — could carry such a bomb onto a US plane.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long has been fixated on bringing down airplanes with hidden explosives. It was behind failed and thwarted plots involving suicide bombers with explosives designed to hide inside underwear and explosives hidden inside printer cartridges shipped on cargo planes.
It was not clear which airports were affected by the extra security measures, but industry data show that more than 250 foreign airports offer nonstop services to the US, including Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai International Airport.
The call for increased security was not connected to Iraq or the recent violence there, said a second US counterterrorism official who was not authorized to speak publicly by name. Another US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the increased security measures had nothing to do with the US’ upcoming Fourth of July holiday or any specific threat.
The extra security is out of an “abundance of caution,” the US official said.
“People should not overreact to it or overspeculate about what’s going on, but there clearly are concerns centered around aviation security that we need to be vigilant about,” US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said late on Wednesday on MSNBC.
Meanwhile, the US Department of State has instructed US embassy employees in Algeria to avoid US-owned or operated hotels through today and Algerian Independence Day tomorrow.
“As of June 2014 an unspecified terrorist group may have been considering attacks in Algiers, possibly in the vicinity of a US-branded hotel,” according to the message from the US embassy in Algeria.
US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not provide details about the reasons for the increased security.