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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Woman busted in Yemen and her lover tied to Al Qaeda plot, as hunt for terror suspects continues

The woman arrested Saturday in Yemen for mailing a pair of potentially deadly package bombs was part of an Al Qaeda plot that included her terrorist paramour, the Daily News has learned.

The first arrest in the conspiracy that rattled nerves on three continents came as Yemeni authorities narrowed their search for other suspects.

Investigators, based on the arrested woman's circle of friends, were pursuing conspirators who used forged documents and ID cards in the latest Al Qaeda scheme, sources told the News.

The packages were headed for two Chicago synagogues, although British officials said they believe one of the bombs was meant to blow up a plane.

The unidentified arrestee was traced through a telephone number she left with a shipping company, and busted at a home near the airport in Yemen's capital, according to a Yemeni official.

Security surrounded her residence in a poor neighborhood of Sana'a before arresting the woman. The suspect's mother was also taken into custody, according to Reuters.

The woman, in her 20s, was reportedly a medical student - but sources told the News that she was aware of her role in the plot.

Defense attorney Abdel Rahman Burman portrayed the suspect in a different light. "Her acquaintances tell me that she is a quiet student and there was no knowledge of her having involvement in any religious or political groups," he told Reuters.

A source told the News she was the spouse or girlfriend of an Al Qaeda operative, and that her role in the plot was simply mailing the explosive packages.

U.S. authorities suspect the bombs were fashioned by Al Qaeda's Yemeni explosives guru, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who helped make the underwear bomb in the botched Christmas Day plane bombing.

Sources told the News yesterday that the two bombs discovered in Dubai and the United Kingdom contained PETN and were four to five times more deadly than the unexploded underwear bomb laced with the same powdered chemical.

Both of the package bombs were set to detonate with a long-distance cell phone call - meaning the plotters didn't need to be near Chicago or aboard the plane, a source told the News.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the British bomb was meant to detonate in mid-air, blowing the plane out of the sky.

Although authorities found no direct links to New York, security was ramped up around the city one day after the foiled plot. The NYPD warned synagogue members to stay alert for suspicious activity, and boosted its presence at houses of worship.

The increased attention was most obvious at Kennedy Airport, where passengers were happy to see the extra vigilance.

"There are more agents walking around the terminal, looking over everything," said Amarindar Singh, 34, a Suffolk County doctor awaiting a flight to India. "I'm glad they're here."

About a dozen Transportation Safety Administration agents patrolled the international terminal, checking food courts and waiting areas. Passengers endured a more intensive grilling as they headed for their flights.

"They're looking in your eyes for a bit longer and asking a few more questions," said Steve Barabas, 56, of Bartow, Fla., who was switching flights in New York for Hungary. "It seems like they're really looking out for trouble."

Local Yemenis said the attempted attack shouldn't reflect poorly on the country.

"Many countries get a bad rap over things like this but there are good people there in Yemen. You want to paint the whole country with one brush? Bad things happen here in America, too," said Johnny, the manager of Yemen Cuisine on Court St. in Brooklyn.

President Obama reached out to Cameron and Saudi King Abdullah to offer his thanks for their countries' roles in defusing the bomb plot.

"The President expressed his strong appreciation for the critical role played by Saudi counterterrorism officials in averting this attempted attack," the White House said about the Abdullah call.

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