(New York Times)
WASHINGTON — The powerful bombs concealed inside cargo packages and destined for the United States were expertly constructed and unusually sophisticated, American officials said Saturday, further evidence that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is steadily improving its abilities to strike on American soil.
As investigators on three continents conducted forensic analyses of two bombs shipped from Yemen and intercepted Friday in Britain and Dubai, American officials said evidence was mounting that the top leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including the radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was behind the attempted attacks.
Yemeni officials on Saturday announced the arrest of a young woman and her mother in connection with the plot, which also may have involved two language schools in Yemen. The two women were not identified, but a defense lawyer who has been in contact with the family, Abdul Rahman Barham, said the daughter was a 22 year-old engineering student at Sana University.
Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said Saturday night during a news conference that Yemeni security forces had identified her based on a tip from American officials, but he did not indicate her suspected role.
Investigators said that the bomb discovered at the Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates was concealed in a Hewlett-Packard desktop printer, with high explosives packed into a printer cartridge to avoid detection by scanners.
“The wiring of the device indicates that this was done by professionals,” said one official involved in the investigation, who like several officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiry was continuing. “It was set up so that if you scan it, all the printer components would look right.”
The bomb discovered in Britain was also hidden in a printer cartridge.
The terror plot broke publicly in dramatic fashion on Friday morning, when the two packages containing explosives and addressed to synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago were found, setting off an international dragnet and fears about packages yet to be discovered. It also led to a tense scene in which American military jets escorted a plane to Kennedy International Airport amid concerns — which turned out to be unfounded — that there might be explosives on board.
On Saturday, in news conferences in London and Yemen, and from interviews with investigators here and abroad, the contours of the investigation began to emerge, along with new details of the frantic hours leading to the discovery of the packages.
American officials said their operating assumption was that the two bombs were the work of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, Al Qaeda in Yemen’s top bomb-maker, whose previous devices have been more rudimentary, and also unsuccessful. Mr. Asiri is believed to have built both the bomb sewn into the underwear of the young Nigerian who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight last Dec. 25, and the suicide bomb that nearly killed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Mohammed bin Nayef, months earlier. (In the second episode, American officials say, Mr. Asiri hid the explosives in a body cavity of his brother, the suicide bomber.)
Just as in the two previous attacks, the bomb discovered in Dubai contained the explosive PETN, according to the Dubai police and Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security. This new plot, Ms. Napolitano said, had the “hallmarks of Al Qaeda.”
The targets of the bombs remained in question.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said on Saturday that the parcel bomb intercepted in England was designed to explode while the plane was flying. The country’s home secretary, Theresa May, said that British investigators had also concluded the device was “viable and could have exploded.”
“The target may have been an aircraft, and had it detonated, the aircraft could have been brought down,” she said.
But earlier in the day, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee, said that federal authorities indicated to him that the packages were probably intended to blow up the Jewish sites in Chicago rather than the cargo planes, since they do not carry passengers.
Based on a conversation with Ms. Napolitano, he said that authorities were also leaving open the possibility that other packages with explosives had not yet been found. On Saturday, Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that no specific threats had been made against synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods in the city, but that officers were watching them more closely as a precaution.
It was a call from Mr. bin Nayef, the Saudi intelligence chief, on Thursday evening to John O. Brennan, the White House senior counterterrorism official and former C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that set off the search, according to American officials. They said Mr. bin Nayef also notified C.I.A. officials in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has sometimes been a reluctant ally in America’s global campaign against radical militants. But it sees Yemen, its impoverished next door neighbor, as a different matter. The Saudis consider the Qaeda branch in Yemen its biggest security threat and Saudi intelligence has set up both a web of electronic surveillance and spies to penetrate the organization.
Reviewing the evidence, American intelligence officials say they believe that the plot may have been blessed by the highest levels of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, including Mr. Awlaki.
“We know that Awlaki has taken a very specific interest in plotting against the United States, and we’ve found that he’s usually behind any attempted attack on American targets,” said one official.
Still they cautioned that it was still early to draw any firm conclusions and they did not present proof of Mr. Awlaki’s involvement.
This year, the C.I.A. designated Mr. Awlaki — an American citizen — as a high priority for the agency’s campaign of targeted killing.
According to one official involved in the investigation, the package that was discovered in Dubai had a woman’s name and location in Sana on the return address. The package left Yemen on Thursday, the official said, where it was flown to Doha, Qatar, and on to Dubai.
Also on Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security dispatched a cable warning that the bombs may have been associated with two schools in Yemen — the Yemen American Institute for Languages-Computer Management, and the American Center for Training and Development.
That connection would echo the attempted bombing last Dec. 25; the Nigerian who was implicated had studied at a different Sana language school before training with Al Qaeda. If language schools are again involved, it opens the possibility that a foreign student or students may have participated in the plot.
Security forces in Yemen were in a state of heightened alert on Saturday, as investigators questioned cargo employees and shut down the FedEx and U.P.S. offices in Sana, the Yemeni capital.
Obama administration officials said they were discussing a range of responses to the thwarted attack. The failed attack on Dec. 25 created an opportunity for the White House to press Yemen’s government to take more aggressive action against Qaeda operatives there, and some American officials believe the conditions are similar now.
A thinly veiled campaign of American missile strikes in Yemen this year has achieved mixed results. American officials said that several Qaeda operatives had been killed in the attacks, but there have also been major setbacks, including a strike in May that accidentally killed a deputy governor in a remote province of Yemen. That strike infuriated Yemen’s president, Mr. Saleh, and forced a months-long halt in the American military campaign.
In recent months, the Obama administration has been debating whether to escalate its secret offensive against the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. The C.I.A. has a fraction of the staff in Yemen that it currently has in Pakistan, where the spy agency is running a covert war in the country’s tribal areas, but over the course of the year the C.I.A. has sent more case officers and analysts to Sana as part of a task force with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.
American officials have been considering sending armed drone aircraft to Yemen to replicate the Pakistan campaign, but such a move would almost certainly require the approval of the mercurial Mr. Saleh.
Yemeni officials have declined to comment on details of the plot, saying only that they are investigating. But new checkpoints appeared in the capital on Saturday, with officers checking the identity cards of drivers and pedestrians.