(New York Times)
WASHINGTON — Saudi intelligence officials warned the United States in early October that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was planning a terrorist attack using one or more aircraft, three weeks before a plot to send parcel bombs on cargo planes was foiled at the last minute, American and European officials said Friday.
The Saudi warning came days after American officials intercepted several packages in mid-September that contained books, papers, CDs and other household items shipped to Chicago from Yemen. The Americans considered the possibility that those parcels might be a test run for a terrorist attack.
Taken together, the Saudi warning and the suspected dry run provide a more detailed picture than American officials had previously described of mounting indications of a possible attack by the same branch of Al Qaeda that tried to blow up a passenger airliner over Detroit last Dec. 25.
American officials cautioned that the Saudi tip in early October, though more specific than other previous warnings, made no mention of an impending attack on the air cargo system.
“Over the past several months, we received intelligence — which was shared across our government — from our foreign partners about threats from AQAP and other terrorist groups,” George Little, a spokesman for the C.I.A., said Friday in an e-mail, referring to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A tip from Saudi intelligence officials to the Obama administration on Oct. 28 that bombs might be on cargo flights prompted officials in the United States and several other countries to begin a frantic search. Two shipments containing explosives, sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago, were intercepted in Britain and Dubai.
That tip was the third and most specific alert from the Saudis in a chain of increasingly urgent warnings to intelligence and counterterrorism officials in Britain, Germany and the United States, the officials said.
The first tip, in July, was a general warning of an attack against the United States or Europe, European intelligence officials said Friday.
Saudi intelligence provided a much more detailed warning on Oct. 9, saying that Al Qaeda in Yemen had four days earlier completed planning for an attack against the United States or Europe that would use one or two airplanes, possibly simultaneously, the European officials said. The warning indicated that the attacks would unfold within a week or so, officials said.
But an American official said the intelligence information gave no specific information on how the attack would be carried out.
“The information we received in early October contained no mention of cargo planes, or the precise details of the plot — to include what planes might be involved, where they might originate, or who the perpetrators might be,” an American official said Friday night. “No one knew, for instance, that AQAP was specifically targeting planes departing Yemen. All of this was taken very seriously, and that’s a key reason why everyone moved quickly when the Saudis contacted American officials last week.”
The German magazine Der Spiegel told The New York Times it would report the Saudi warnings in its editions next week, and the American officials confirmed them to The Times.
Also on Friday, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for sending the parcel bombs from Yemen last week, confirming what counterterrorism officials had assumed about who was behind the foiled attack on cargo planes.
But officials were skeptical about a second claim in the group’s communiqué: that it was behind the crash on Sept. 3 of a United Parcel Service plane in Dubai in which both pilots were killed. Investigators have not determined the cause of a fire aboard the Boeing 747, before the crash, but based on analysis of the voice recorder, they concluded that no explosion occurred.
The statement from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, posted on militant Web forums, addressed President Obama and threatened further attacks. “We say to Obama: We struck three blows to your aircraft within one year,” the statement said. “God willing, we will continue to strike blows against American interests and the interests of America’s allies.”
The two bombs intercepted on Oct. 29 consisted of ink toner cartridges packed with the chemical explosive PETN and placed inside Hewlett-Packard printers. The packages were sent from the U.P.S. and FedEx offices in Sana, the Yemeni capital, but were intercepted in Dubai and near Nottingham, England, after Saudi intelligence officials provided the tracking numbers for the packages to their American counterparts.
The packages were addressed to historical enemies of Muslims from the Crusades and the Inquisition, using out-of-date addresses of Jewish institutions in Chicago. But investigators believe the parcels were intended to blow up in flight, possibly over American airspace.
Der Spiegel reported new details about how the parcel bombs were designed to explode. In the package found at the East Midlands Airport in England, a timer would have sent an electric charge to a light-emitting diode that would have set off an acid igniter in a plastic syringe. It, in turn, would have detonated about 14 ounces of PETN, one of the most powerful explosives known.
The package in Dubai was actually four packages wrapped together, including clothes, CDs and a printer cartridge, Der Spiegel reported. In that package, a similar chain reaction was intended to detonate almost 11 ounces of PETN. An American official on Friday night confirmed the details of the bomb’s internal workings.
American officials said from the moment the parcel bombs were discovered that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was almost certainly behind the plot. But they suggested that the claim about the Sept. 3 crash was probably a belated attempt by the terrorist group to take advantage of a tragedy in which it played no role.
“There are very strong indications that AQAP was responsible for plotting last week’s disrupted cargo plane plot, but we can’t confirm at this point their claims about the early September incident,” said one American counterterrorism official, who asked not to be named while discussing delicate intelligence findings.
The Saudi warnings and the test packages sent in September were not the only hints that the Qaeda branch might be planning attacks. Three videos posted to the Web last year showed Qaeda bomb makers in Yemen concealing explosives in a picture frame, an audio cassette case and a portable radio, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a private organization in Washington that tracks militant Web sites.