Saturday, October 30, 2010
Yemeni forces arrest woman believed linked to explosive packages
A woman believed to be connected to a plot to send explosive packages bound for the United States has been arrested in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, according to a Yemeni government official and a reporter with the state news agency.
A female relative of the woman was also being questioned by Yemeni authorities, the government official said. The relationship between the two women was not immediately known.
Believing that a Yemen affiliate of al Qaeda was involved, American and British authorities said explosive devices jammed into ink toner cartridges were powerful enough to bring down a large aircraft. One package was found in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates; the other in England.
But officials weren't certain whether those behind the plot, who likely would have used cell phones to trigger the devices, wanted to detonate them while the planes were in the air or at their destinations, two synagogues in Chicago, Illinois.
British authorities said they believe East Midlands Airport in central England was simply a conduit for shipment of one device to the United States.
"We believe that the device was designed to go off on the airplane," Prime Minister David Cameron said. "We cannot be sure about the timing when that was meant to take place. There is no early evidence that that was meant to take place over British soil, but of course we cannot rule it out."
The devices were designed to be detonated by a cell phone, a source close to the investigation told CNN.UK Home Secretary Theresa May said authorities do not believe the perpetrators would have known the location of the device had they detonated it.
Authorities pointed their fingers at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, a poor Arab nation that has emerged as a major operating base for al Qaeda and other terror groups.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told CNN Saturday that the plan to send the explosives has the "hallmarks of al Qaeda, the AQAP -- they are constantly trying things to test our system."
Yemen has asked for outside help to thwart terror groups, but the country, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, is still used for operations, U.S. officials say. The failed "Christmas Day Bomber" plot, for example, is believed to be the workings of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And in January, the United States and United Kingdom temporarily closed their embassies in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, because of terror concerns.
U.S. authorities were grateful for a tip from Yemen's oil-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, alerting them to the suspicious packages.
The Saudi government provided U.S. officials with tracking numbers of the two packages, enabling quick tracing to the United Kingdom and Dubai, a source told CNN.
President Barack Obama called King Abdullah on Saturday to thank him, the White House said.
On Friday, Obama confirmed the two devices contained explosive material and were bound for two "places of Jewish worship" in Chicago, Illinois.
"We ... know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ... continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies," Obama said during a press briefing.
Authorities on Friday scrambled to locate other packages sent from Yemen. They have been found and did not pose a threat, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
Obama's presidential counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, spoke to Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, stressing "the importance of close counterterrorism cooperation, including the need to work together on the ongoing investigation into the events over the past few days," according to the White House.
Saleh told reporters that Yemen could not confirm the packages contained explosives, but he acknowledged the nation's economy and tourism industry have suffered because of al Qaeda's presence.
He vowed to fight the terror group.
"We do want anyone to interfere in Yemeni affairs and start chasing al Qaeda," Saleh said. "We will chase al Qaeda with our airplanes and our equipment. We will chase al Qaeda wherever they are."
They were "professionally" loaded and connected using an electric circuit to a mobile phone chip tucked in a printer, Dubai police told WAM, the official news agency for the United Arab Emirates. The devices were packed in toner cartridges and designed to be detonated by a cell phone, a source close to the investigation told CNN.
The package found at East Midlands Airport contained a "manipulated" toner cartridge and had white powder on it as well as wires and a circuit board, a law enforcement source said Friday. A similar package set to be shipped on a FedEx cargo plane was discovered in Dubai, officials there said.
A source close to the investigation said the type of material found in the devices was PETN, a highly explosive organic compound belonging to the same chemical family as nitroglycerin. Six grams of PETN are enough to blow a hole in the fuselage of an aircraft.
PETN was allegedly one of the components of the bomb concealed by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to set off an explosion aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.
AbdulMutallab is alleged to have been carrying 80 grams of PETN in that botched attack.
"The quantity of PETN in these [new] devices was about five times the volume used at Christmas" by AbdulMutallab, Col. Richard Kemp, the former chairman of the British government's Cobra Intelligence Group, told CNN affiliate ITN. The plot "does appear to be a typical al Qaeda-type operation," he said.
A source closely involved in the investigation said the detonating substance was Lead Azide. Lead Azide is a "very powerful initiator" which is easily prepared and is a standard substance in detonations, the source said.
Kemp said al Qaeda remains intent on carrying out a "spectacular attack" comparable to the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil.
In response to the threat, authorities stepped up searches Friday of cargo planes and trucks in several U.S. cities, said law enforcement sources with detailed knowledge of the investigation.
Also Friday, the Transportation Security Administration stopped all packages originating from Yemen, and shipping companies UPS, FedEx and DHL all said they were complying with the order. May said Saturday that all cargo into or through the United Kingdom originating in Yemen was halted as well.
The U.S. Postal Service also announced a temporary suspension of acceptance of inbound international mail originating in Yemen.
As authorities pressed forward in the investigation Saturday and strengthened security, a leader of a small LGBT-friendly synagogue in Chicago, Illinois, said her place of worship was one of the targets of the intercepted packages.
"It was unnerving, but we carried on as normal," Lilli Kornblum, co-president of Or Chadash, said of Friday night's services.
The FBI in Chicago would not confirm whether Or Chadash was targeted, spokesman Royden Rice said.
"We notified both targets yesterday," Rice told CNN Saturday. "We always notify potential victims of crime. If they wish to reveal who they are, it's up to them."