Cargo bombs plot: US hunts Saudi extremist
Chris McGreal in Washington and Vikram Dodd
guardian.co.uk,\t Sunday 31 October 2010 20.59 GMT
An undated handout photo of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Photograph: Yemeni Interior Ministry / Handout/EPA
The international hunt for those behind the failed attempt to ship bombs on US cargo planes was focused tonight on a Saudi-born extremist linked to al-Qaida in Yemen who is also accused of constructing the Christmas Day bomb.
Security officials believe the bombmaker was Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is considered to be one of the organisation's most radical adherents after sending his own brother on a failed suicide mission with a bomb in his body cavity.
As it emerged today that one of the bombs had travelled on two Qatar Airways passenger flights before being detected in Dubai, British counter-terrorism officials warned that al-Qaida had exposed a serious vulnerability in aviation security by constructing sophisticated devices that were extremely difficult to detect.
John Brennan, the Obama administration's counter-terrorism adviser, said the explosives "bear all of the hallmarks" of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was responsible for the failed attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day using explosives hidden in a Nigerian suicide-bomber's underwear.
Brennan added that he agreed with British officials that the bombs were intended to bring down planes in flight, even though they were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
American officials are quietly conceding that although the bombs were tracked down after a tipoff from Saudi intelligence, the fact that a loss of life was averted was down to a certain amount of luck.
Qatar Airways said the bomb discovered in Dubai on its way to Chicago with FedEx had been put on a passenger flight from the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, to Doha in Qatar before being transferred to another plane to Dubai.
Meanwhile Yemeni authorities released Hanan al-Samawi, the student suspected of delivering the parcels to FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS) offices. A family member and a government official told Reuters that the woman, believed to be in her 20s, had been released. "Another woman had used her name and ID. Authorities are looking for that woman," the government official said.
The latest devices, like Asiri's previous attempts, contained the explosive, PETN. Intelligence officials say that the bombs were carefully wired so they would look like genuine printer cartridges on a scan.
Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, tipped off the Americans about the attempted attack.
American suspicion has also focused on a radical American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, the only US citizen known to be on the CIA's assassination list.
Awlaki is believed to have provided the working knowledge used to assist several attempted attacks in the US as well as "spiritual" guidance and support to would-be bombers.
American officials say he is highly motivated to attack the US on its own soil or readily identifiable American targets, such as airlines. UPS and FedEx are both American companies.
Obama approved Awlaki's name being added to the CIA's assassination list in April after US officials confirmed his links to early bombing attempts.
Brennan said that the authorities "can't presume that we have identified all of the packages that are out there".
"We don't know whether or not that's the extent of it, so we're going to continue to pursue all possible leads in the event that there are some other devices that are out there," he said. "It would be very imprudent for me and for others within the counter-terrorism community here and abroad to presume that there are no others out there. That said, we are working with the intelligence that we have. We feel as though we've stopped all of the packages that have come into the United States that were originating in Yemen."
Brennan indicated that the handling of cargo will be overhauled. Officials are likely to examine whether packages should be allowed on to passenger planes and to impose considerably tighter screening of air cargo which has long been thought by security experts to be a weak link compared to the tight controls on individuals flying.
UPS and FedEx have halted business in Yemen.
The home secretary, Theresa May, said Britain has already curtailed cargo deliveries. "What we have done is taken action in relation to future unaccompanied freight from the Yemen, which would either be coming into the UK or through the UK, and banned that freight," she said.