WASHINGTON – The two bombs concealed in U.S.-bound packages found on cargo planes Friday in England and Dubai were wired to explode, at least one via a cell phone detonator, and were powerful enough to bring down an aircraft, U.S. and British officials said Saturday.
A Yemeni official in Washington said a woman was arrested in Yemen in connection with sending the packages and that a relative of hers – whom the official identified as either her mother or sister – was being interrogated.
“The woman was arrested based on a tip from foreign intelligence,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “Her name and phone number were provided.”
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a short news conference late Saturday that Yemeni forces acted on a tip from U.S. officials, who had passed along a telephone trace.
The two bomb packages, addressed to Jewish organizations in Chicago, were intercepted in Dubai and East Midlands, England, after a detailed tip from Saudi intelligence that included package tracking numbers, U.S. officials say. The Dubai package was sent via FedEx, while the package to England went via UPS.
A search of 15 other suspicious packages from Yemen turned up no further bombs, a U.S. law enforcement source said.
Plot’s intent unclear
U.S. officials are still trying to piece together the intent of the plot, which they suspect was carried out by al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula.
And as President Barack Obama campaigned this weekend, he kept tabs on the continuing investigation. Obama discussed the plot in phone calls Saturday morning with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi King Abdullah. He also got a private briefing from John O. Brennan, his top counterterrorism aide.
It’s unclear how the Saudis were clued in, but earlier this month, a leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, Jabir Jubran al-Fayfi, turned himself in to the Saudi government. Picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, he had been held in Guantanamo Bay before being turned over to the Saudis. He went through a rehabilitation program for militants and was released, only to rejoin al-Qaida in 2006.
But al-Fayfi contacted Saudi authorities from Yemen to express his regret and readiness to surrender, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement Oct. 15.
Authorities were still investigating whether the plot sought to blow up the cargo planes in midair or upon landing – or whether the bombs were intended for the Chicago addresses on the packages.
British Home Secretary Theresa May said in London on Saturday that the device found at the East Midlands airport “was viable and could have exploded. The target may have been an aircraft and had it detonated the aircraft could have been brought down.”
She added, “We do not believe that the perpetrators of the attack would have known the location of the device when it was planned to explode.”
Britain’s PM Cameron told the BBC on Saturday that “we believe that the device was designed to go off on the airplane. We cannot be sure about the timing, about when that was meant to take place. There is no early evidence it was designed to take place over British soil but of course we cannot rule that out.”
U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., after briefings from Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, told the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau that the bombs were fashioned out of the chemical explosive PETN, the same substance used in the attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
“But this was 10 times bigger,” said a federal law enforcement official, who said each package contained “about a pound each” of PETN.
“The fact that PETN was used in this plot is worrisome,” said a U.S. intelligence official not authorized to speak for attribution. “PETN is hard to detect and lends itself to being concealed. It is not hard to make, but it takes some sophistication to conceal the explosives in the right way. It packs a punch. You don’t need that much of it to blow a hole in an aircraft.”
U.S. officials have said that the Christmas Day bomb was built by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who also reportedly built a PETN device in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the top Saudi counterterrorism official last year.
One of the bombs found Friday was wired for remote detonation via cell phone, Harman said, while another was linked to a timer but lacked a triggering device.
The remote detonation setup “leads me to speculate that … people had (detonators) on the ground somewhere in Chicago,” Harman said.
The foiled attack is putting renewed scrutiny on Yemen, a nearly failed state that officials said has become an increasing hotbed of terrorist planning.
“Outside of the Afghan-Pakistan area where the al-Qaida core and the senior leadership reside, I would say that the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active operational franchise right now of al-Qaida, and that this is one that deserves a lot of our attention,” the White House counterterrorism adviser, Brennan, said Friday.
U.S. law enforcement officials said they are growing increasingly intrigued about another Yemeni figure released to the Saudis in 2006, Uthman al-Ghamdi, also a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
Ghamdi reportedly has surfaced as a right-hand man to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric thought to be hiding in Yemen. Both men are considered top leaders in the Arabian Peninsula arm of al-Qaida.
Ghamdi recently wrote a memoir for Inspire Magazine, an al-Qaida online quarterly, in which he describes being flown to the Guantanamo prison aboard a cargo plane – a link that officials said could give him a reason to want to strike back at cargo aircraft.
“There’s certainly a connection there,” said one federal official.
Ghamdi said he was held as Detainee No. 184. Records show he was charged with several offenses, among them forging a passport, joining a fatwa to fight with other Muslims, and training with a machine gun at Al Farouq.
In June 2006 he was released and repatriated to Saudi Arabia. But like other released terror captives, Ghamdi soon took up the fight again. In 2009, the Saudi government listed him among their 85 “most wanted” suspected terrorists. Ten other former captives also made the list. Ghamdi reportedly soon left Saudi Arabia for Yemen.
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