The maker of the explosives discovered aboard air-cargo services last week may have also supplied devices that targeted a U.S. airliner on Dec. 25 and a Saudi Arabian prince in August 2009, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser said.
“The indications are right now, based on the forensics analysis, that it’s an individual who has been responsible for putting these devices together,” John Brennan said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” without naming the suspect. The bombmaker “is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience,” he said.
Authorities are focusing on Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the al-Qaeda bombmaker behind plots to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight and to kill the prince spearheading Saudi Arabia’s antiterrorism effort, said a U.S. official who asked not be named because the investigation isn’t complete.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN Oct. 30, that the devices discovered last week appear to contain PETN, the same explosive substance found in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to take down the Northwest airplane.
The packages found last week in the U.K. and Dubai, both originating from Yemen and bound for Jewish synagogues in Chicago, triggered an examination of three United Parcel Service Inc. planes Oct. 29 and confiscation of a FedEx Corp. parcel. Both companies halted service from Yemen.
The UPS bombs were sophisticated in their construction and in the way they were concealed, Brennan said yesterday on “CNN’s State of the Union.”
Investigators have to “presume” other devices may still be out there, though there is no specific evidence, Brennan told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Yemeni security forces yesterday released a woman who was arrested with her mother on suspicion of attempting to send two parcel bombs, local NewsYemen website reported, citing the woman’s father.
Authorities had taken the daughter into custody in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, the defense ministry said in a mobile- phone text message two days ago. Abdulrahman Barman, a member of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, a Yemeni human rights group who said he represents the suspect, identified the younger woman as 22-year-old Hanan al-Samawi, an engineering student at Sana’a University.
Hundreds of Sana’a university students protested in solidarity with their arrested colleague. The students who gathered at the gate of the university said al-Samawi is innocent and has no connection with any suspicious groups.
The attempted bombings appear to be the work of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the international terrorist organization that took credit for the Sept. 11, 2001, airplane hijackings in the U.S., Brennan said.
The sophistication of the bombs “shows that it was an al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula effort,” Brennan said on the ABC program. “It’s not just these two individuals. We’re looking for a lot more.”
The parcel intercepted in Dubai included a computer printer with explosive materials hidden inside the ink cartridge and an electric circuit connected to a mobile phone’s SIM card, the United Arab Emirates’ state-run WAM news agency said, citing a statement from Dubai police.
One of the two intercepted packages was set to be detonated by a cell phone and the other by a timer, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. Authorities don’t rule out other potentially lethal packages having been shipped, the person said.
Brennan said authorities are pursuing all leads to find out more about the bombs. Police in Dubai said officials intercepted and defused one at a FedEx facility in the emirate on Oct. 29.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the Dec. 25 attempt by Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, to blow up the Northwest transatlantic flight, and the Aug. 27, 2009, suicide bombing targeting Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the assistant interior minister. The prince suffered non- life threatening injuries from the Jeddah attack.
Authorities also are “looking very closely” at whether the crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in September is related to the cargo-bombs plot, Brennan told “CNN’s State of the Union.”
Obama said he and his top intelligence aides concluded there was “a credible terrorist threat against our country” and pledged to “destroy this al-Qaeda affiliate” in Yemen. The president spoke Oct. 30 about the plot with British Prime Minister David Cameron, according to a White House statement.
Yemen Rejects Intervention
As police surrounded the house of Al-Samawi, the student, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh held a press conference to declare he wouldn’t accept any outside attempt to deal with al- Qaeda operatives in his country.
“We will not accept any intervention in our internal affairs,” Saleh said. “We do not want anybody to hunt down al- Qaeda, for we will chase down al-Qaeda wherever they are, using our own planes and equipment.”
Yemeni authorities expect to begin screening 100 percent of air cargo leaving the country, Mahamed Abdul-Kader, deputy chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters yesterday at a conference in Doha, Qatar.
“We think Yemen is able to handle” security, said Saif al-Suwaidi, director general of the United Arab Emirates’ general civil aviation authority. “This could have happened anywhere,” al-Suwaidi said, speaking at the same conference.
British Home Secretary Theresa May said Oct. 30 that steps will be taken to stop all unaccompanied cargo entering the U.K. from Yemen after interception of a device at East Midlands Airport the previous day. The package seized was viable and could have exploded on board an aircraft, she said.
The U.K. threat level was at “severe,” though there was no indication “that another attack is imminent,” May said.
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Authorities in Yemen were searching for more packages and had examined 24 suspect parcels in Sana’a, the Associated Press reported, citing a Yemeni security official.
The Oct. 29 discoveries triggered examinations of three cargo flights that landed in Philadelphia and in Newark, New Jersey.
Brennan notified Obama about the potential threat at 10:35 p.m. Washington time on Oct. 28, setting in motion a response that included the Central Intelligence Agency, the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Additional steps are being taken by the U.S. to screen cargo, Obama said in remarks at the White House. Brennan said it is “prudent” to ensure that packages from Yemen are “looked at very carefully, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The incident spurred UPS and FedEx to put an embargo on shipments from Yemen. The U.S. Postal Service also suspended acceptance of international mail originating in Yemen.