WASHINGTON – A person suspected of ties to al-Qaida’s Yemen branch shipped several parcels in September in what may have been a test run of last week’s mailing of air-cargo bombs, a federal official said Monday.
Counterterrorism agents intercepted the September parcels, which contained harmless materials, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The interdiction is one reason Western intelligence agencies made “an incredibly fast mobilization” when they received a tip from Saudi Arabia’s government last Thursday that two parcel bombs from Yemen were aboard cargo and passenger planes.
The official also said two bombs seized in the United Arab Emirates and Britain last week were built using cell phone alarm circuitry as timers, but did not say when or whether they were set to explode.
The disclosures cast doubt on widespread reports that the Saudis learned of the attempted bombings from a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who hooked up with al-Qaida, then defected and turned himself in to the Riyadh government in late September.
Despite the interception of the bombs, terrorism experts said, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula still scored a huge victory with the attempted attack.
Not only did the would-be attacks prompt President Barack Obama to interrupt midterm election campaigning to issue a comment, but they also drew a torrent of media attention that raised the profile of al-Qaida’s Yemen operations.
The incident also triggered calls for more costly security measures, in support of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s stated objective of bankrupting the United States. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. have resulted in Washington spending trillions of dollars to strengthen anti-terrorism measures and to pursue wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s one and the same,” said another U.S. government official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “You get a victory even if nothing horrendous happens.”
Details surrounding the attempted bombings were still elusive. Absent the Saudi tip, it is unclear whether airport authorities in Dubai and Britain would have screened the packages addressed to two Jewish centers in Chicago before they were put aboard planes. It’s also unclear whether, even if the parcels were screened, current technology would have identified the explosive chemical PETN packaged inside printer cartridges.
However, the outlines of the counterterrorism coup were beginning to become clearer.
The U.S. government official knowledgeable about the September incident said authorities intercepted a few suspicious packages from Yemen because they were associated with a person who was thought to be part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The official did not know whether the sender is a suspect in last week’s bomb shipments.
The September parcels contained “nothing suspicious or terrorism-related,” and one or more were books, the official said.
“It could have been a test of the system, and that was something that everyone looked at,” the official said, declining to identify the addressees.
“That’s why, when the tip came in Thursday night (from the Saudi government), it was an incredibly fast mobilization.”
One of al-Qaida’s goals has been to “compel the United States and the West … to focus a substantial part of their resources on them,” said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “And that alone is a triumph, particularly at a time when the world economy fell into a very serious recession.”
White, now affiliated with the Middle East Institute, blamed U.S. political leaders for “defining the standard of safety as perfection, because … the closer you get to trying to achieve it, the more you’re wasting assets.”
Hoffman said al-Qaida “has made no secret in recent years that they’re waging a form of economic warfare.”