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October 30, 2010, 9:16 am

Tracking the News on Air Cargo Explosives

This post will follow Saturday’s news developments around the world — as well as storylines on the Web — regarding the plot to send explosive devices via air cargo from Yemen to two Chicago synagogues.

5:23 p.m. |Cameron Said Devise Was to Explode in Mid-Air

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said on Saturday that the parcel bomb bound for the United States and intercepted in England was designed to explode while the plane was flying.

In a statement to reporters outside his country residence, Mr. Cameron said that the bomb was “designed to go off on the aeroplane.” But he added: “We cannot be sure about when that was supposed to take place. There is no early evidence that it was meant to take place over Britain, but of course, we cannot rule that out.”

The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, had also suggested that the bomb, discovered on a cargo plane at East Midlands Airport, about 100 miles north of London, was designed to bring it down. But these statements from Britain run counter to how American officials have been characterizing the plot: as a planned attack on American synagogues. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee, had said earlier on Saturday that federal authorities indicated to him on Saturday that the packages were probably intended to blow up the synagogues in Chicago rather than the cargo planes because they do not carry passengers.

CBS News reported that the quantities of the explosive PETN found disguised in printer cartridges was significant — as much as a pound. This remains unconfirmed. Experts have said that a little more than three ounces of the substance is enough to destroy a car.

Police in Dubai confirmed earlier today that a second device found in the United Arab Emirates was “equipped with an electrical circuit linked to a mobile telephone [SIM] card,” leading to speculation the devices were designed to be remotely detonated.

4:03 p.m. |Officials Confirm Arrest
President Ali Abdullah SalehKhaled Abdullah/Reuters President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on Saturday.

Yemeni officials have confirmed to The New York Times that a suspect in the plot was arrested in Yemen. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

3:23 p.m. |More Reports on an Arrest

The Yemeni embassy has now confirmed the arrest of a female suspect in the attempted mail bombings, according to CBS News (though there was no response to calls The Lede made to the Yemeni embassy in Washington, the foreign ministry in Sana and Yemen’s mission to the United Nations in New York).

The information that is seeping out since the arrest is mostly hazy and anonymously sourced. The Associated Press cites Yemeni “security officials” who have said that the arrest happened “in the al-Rawdah district near the airport in Sana.” The authorities, The A.P. said, are now seeking additional suspects believed to be linked to Al Qaeda. The suspects are also “believed to have used forged documents and ID cards” to perpetrate the plot.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen told reporters in Sana that the United States and the United Arab Emirates had provided information that led to the initial arrest.

2:56 p.m. |Shippers Defend Procedures

Shipping companies defended their procedures on Saturday in light of the fact that packages with explosives made it out of Yemen and as far as Britain and Dubai.

Maury Lane, a spokesman for FedEx, the carrier for the package that was found in Dubai, said that though the package had arrived via a contract shipping company from Yemen, it had never made it onto a FedEx plane in Dubai. It was, he said, “intercepted prior to being loaded on the aircraft, working with the F.B.I. and local authorities.”

An airline official, who did not want to be identified because the subject involved security procedures, said that major shipping companies have sophisticated screening procedures that — in theory — allow them to check packages and letters for explosives and radioactive material. Cargo companies, the official said, often know more about the packages they carry and their shippers than airlines do about their passengers.

Investigators are still looking into the security lapses that allowed explosives to travel as far as they did on this occasion.

Jad Mouawad contributed reporting.

2:42 p.m. |Arrest Reported

Yemeni security forces in the capital, Sana, have arrested a woman suspected of mailing explosive parcels to addresses in the United States, a number of news organizations are reporting, including Reuters. Those reports cited unnamed sources and could not be immediately confirmed.

An official told Reuters that the suspect had been traced through a telephone number she had left with a shipping company. No further details were immediately available.

Earlier today, in announcing that his forces had surrounded the woman’s house, as reported below, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, told reporters his country is “determined to continue fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda in cooperation with its partners. But we do not want anyone to interfere in Yemeni affairs by hunting down Al Qaeda.” He also said there is a lack of coordination between his intelligence agency and those of the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

2:20 p.m. |Focus on PETN

Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, is the explosive that the authorities have said was present in the packages intercepted in Britain and Dubai.

Here’s a primer on PETN from last December, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite the explosive, which was sewn into his underwear.

The Guardian and The Daily News of New York have reports today describing PETN as a relatively stable colorless powder that is one of the main ingredients in the plastic explosive Semtex. The Guardian characterizes it as “one of the most powerful explosives made today.” Just 100 grams could destroy a car, an expert tells the paper, though it needs to be triggered by a shockwave, hit with a hammer or heated by some kind of primary detonator.

PETN can be difficult to detect, which is perhaps one reason that terrorists have frequently attempted to use it — including Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, in 2001, and militants who tried to kill the Saudi counterterrorism chief last year.

2:07 p.m. |U.S.P.S. Suspends Inbound Service From Yemen

The United States Postal Service “has temporarily suspended acceptance of inbound international mail originating in Yemen,” it said Saturday.

The suspension “has been issued in response to the potential threat posed by suspicious packages arriving in the U.S.” from Yemen, Greg Frey, a spokesman for the service, said in a statement.

FedEx and U.P.S. will, for now at least, no longer ship from Yemen, either. Some industry analysts have speculated that because Yemen is responsible for such low volumes of cargo transport, firms might simply stop delivering its packages altogether.

As noted below, the police in Sana, Yemen’s capital, shut the FedEx and U.P.S. offices there on Saturday.

Yemen’s government denied a report circulating early on Saturday that it had found 24 additional suspect packages, but at the international airport, investigators were questioning employees of FedEx and U.P.S., airport officials said.

Jad Mouawad contributed reporting.

1:39 p.m. |Yemenis Surround House of Suspect

The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said that Yemeni security forces had surrounded a house where a woman suspected of mailing the packages was believed to be hiding, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear whether an arrest had been made.

12:18 p.m. |Yemeni Police Shut Cargo Offices

Our colleague Robert F. Worth in Beirut, Lebanon, reports that the Yemeni police have closed down the offices of FedEx and U.P.S. in Sana, the Yemeni capital.

11:47 a.m. |‘Aircraft Could Have Been Brought Down’

The package discovered in Britain, intercepted on its way from Yemen to the United States, was “viable and could have exploded,” Theresa May, the British home secretary, said on Saturday. She said the explosives had the potential to bring down an aircraft.

“Our preliminary investigation is now complete,” she said in a statement following a meeting of Britain’s emergency planning committee COBRA. “I can confirm that 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.”

Britain, she said, was not thought to be the target of the bomb. “We do not believe that the perpetrators of the attack would have known the location of the device when it was planned to explode,” she said. But “all unaccompanied air freight originating in Yemen” coming into Britain has been stopped as a precaution, she added.

Ms. May said she would be speaking to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Saturday. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama have spoken to discuss the response to the terror plot. Reuters reports that Mr. Obama has also called Saudi King Abdullah. American officials have said that Saudi officials provided the tip that led to the discovery of the bombs.

11:01 a.m. |Chicago Targets

The Chicago Tribune reports that the two packages that contained explosives may have been headed for Jewish houses of worship in the East Rogers Park and Lakeview neighborhoods of Chicago.

The newspaper, working from information provided by “a source familiar with the investigation,” reports that Or Chadash, a congregation of about 100 that serves “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews,” was one of those targeted, though the would-be bombers apparently had an old address for it in Lakeview.

Or Chadash did not immediately return a message from The Lede seeking comment, but Robin Sampliner, a past president of the congregation, told the Tribune that she heard of the plot on Friday and was “stunned.”
“I heard that the packages were intended for Chicago,” she said, “but it didn’t even occur to me that our small congregation would be a target.”

The newspaper did not identify a synagogue in East Rogers Park that may have been a target.

10:46 a.m. |Reports of Additional Explosives

Through the morning several news organizations have reported that authorities have sought, and might still be seeking, additional packages with explosives. The Associated Press cited an unnamed “Yemeni security official” as saying that investigators in the capital, Sana, “were examining 24 other suspect packages.”

Indeed, the intelligence tip that led to the bombs being discovered in Britain and Dubai specified multiple parcels, ABC News, among others, reports.

An agent with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak about an active investigation, told The Lede this morning that, to his knowledge, there is no active search to uncover additional devices on American soil. The focus of intelligence efforts has now shifted, he said, to coordinating with Yemeni authorities to try and trace the source of the attacks.

10:28 a.m. |New Threats and an Influential Militant

More from our colleague John F. Burns in London:

British officials and security experts said they regarded the use of cargo planes to deliver explosives as a sinister, but predictable, new front in the war against terrorism. By using the freight aircraft as a new “delivery system,” they said, the plotters appeared to have moved beyond reliance on suicide bombers boarding passenger planes, the method used in the 9/11 attacks and a succession of subsequent attacks that have been foiled. Those attempts included Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failure to ignite explosives on an airliner over Detroit on Dec. 25 last year, and a Qaeda-linked plot to bomb seven trans-Atlantic airliners, which was foiled by Scotland Yard in 2006.

“This is a new dynamic,” said Sajjan M. Gohel, director for international security for the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, an independent security and intelligence research group. “Whenever security gaps are plugged, and the threat minimized, terrorist groups will find alternative means of striking their targets. If they can’t go for passenger aircraft, they go for cargo planes; and if they can’t go after cargo planes, they’ll go after another link in the chain.”

In a telephone interview, Mr. Gohel said that the latest plot appeared to confirm the growing threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group, and the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked by American and British intelligence officials to a succession of terrorist plots in recent years. These have included Mr. Abdulmutallab’s foiled attack, the trans-Atlantic airliner plot and the shooting spree that killed 13 soldiers last November by a United States army psychologist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base.

Increasingly, Mr. Awlaki is being depicted by Western intelligence officials as a threat on the scale of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mr. Awlaki was the only militant leader singled out this week in the first public speech ever made by a head of Britain’s MI6. Sir John Sawers, the current MI6 chief, described “reading, every day, intelligence reports describing the plotting of terrorists who are bent on maiming and murdering people in this country,” and cited Mr. Awlaki and Yemen as increasingly dangerous. “From his remote base in Yemen,” he said, Mr. Awlaki “broadcasts propaganda and terrorist instruction in fluent English, over the Internet.”

Mr. Gohel, the terrorism analyst, said the importance of Mr. Awlaki and the Yemen-based Qaeda group he leads rested on the fact that they operate independently from the leadership of the main branch of Al Qaeda, with their own membership, cell structure and finances. “I’ve been saying for the past year that al-Awlaki is the most dangerous ideologue in the world,” Mr. Gohel said. “Unlike bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, he doesn’t need subtitles on his videos to indoctrinate and influence young people in the West.” Because he was born and raised in the United States, and lived for two years in Britain, Mr. Awlaki “understands the Western mindset — he has a better grip than bin Laden and Zawahiri when it comes to plotting terrorist attacks,” he said.

In his Internet harangues, Mr. Awlaki thrives in showing off his familiarity with Western culture, citing from Dickens and Shakespeare, among others. “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea,” he said in one of his addresses this year.

9:25 a.m. |‘Tipoff’ From an M16 Agent

This report is from our colleague John F. Burns in London:

The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with close contacts in the security agencies, reported in its Saturday editions that the plot was discovered “after a tipoff” to an MI6 agent “responsible for Yemen.”

MI6 is the popular term for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the country’s foreign intelligence agency. A spokesman at the Foreign Office, responsible for MI6, refused to comment on the report when he was reached by telephone on Saturday, saying it involved “operational matters.”

The careful wording of the Telegraph report suggested the MI6 official may have been based at Britain’s embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

The embassy, like the American mission in Sanaa, has been the target of several terrorist attacks, including an ambush earlier this month in which a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a convoy of vehicles moving through rush-hour traffic in Sanaa that was carrying Britain’s deputy ambassador and four other diplomats. One of the diplomats was lightly injured, according to an official statement in London.

The timeline given by officials in London appeared to confirm that the plot began to unravel after British police met a United Parcels Service cargo aircraft that landed in the predawn hours of Friday at East Midlands Airport, a major cargo hub that lies about 10 miles south of the city of Nottingham, and 110 miles north of London. Around 3.30 a.m., British time, the police, aided by officers from a counter-terrorist unit at Scotland Yard, opened a container offloaded from the UPS aircraft and found a carton containing what officials in London said was a “manipulated” computer ink cartridge, which was said to have been covered in white powder and mated to a small circuit board with wires “crudely” protruding from it.

The discovery was quickly relayed to officials in Washington, British officials said, triggering events that included the White House decision to wake up President Obama, and the search Friday morning of the UPS planes at Philadelphia and Newark. The account in the Telegraph said the plane searched at Philadelphia, which was bound for Chicago, was the same aircraft that carried the package containing the suspect ink cartridge to Britain. The newspaper said the aircraft had been cleared for its onward flight to the United States after a forensic examination concluded that did not contain explosives.

But alarm heightened, according to the Telegraph, when a subsequent check on the carton taken from the UPS aircraft revealed a Hewlett-Packard printer containing a “hidden device”, apparently another ink cartridge, that was linked to a mobile phone. This device was flown on a police helicopter to a government laboratory, and found to contain explosive material. It appeared to be this second device that Ms. May was speaking of in a videotaped statement released by the Home office on Saturday. “I can say at this stage that it did contain explosive material, but it is not yet clear whether it was a viable explosive device”, she said.

9:16 a.m. |‘Hallmarks of Al Qaeda’

Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, on Saturday morning linked Al Qaeda to the explosives intercepted on cargo from Yemen to the United States, echoing an emerging consensus since the plot was made public on Friday.

“I think we would agree with that, that it does contain all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and in particular Al Qaeda A.P.,” she said on ABC, singling out Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. An active cell is based in Yemen.

Both devices were adapted printer toner cartridges, and the emerging pictures show white powder covering the once innocuous office supplies, with wires and circuit boards hanging from them.

The packages were mailed via air freight and addressed to a synagogue and a Jewish Community Center in Chicago, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though authorities haven’t yet confirmed specific targets, neither package was directed to KAM Isaiah Israel, a synagogue across the street from President Obama’s Chicago home.

“The parcel was prepared in a professional manner,” a statement from the Dubai police force said this morning of the package stopped at a FedEx center there, “where a closed electrical circuit was connected to a mobile phone SIM card hidden inside the printer.”

The cartridge has now been disposed of, it added, but the plot “carries features similar to previous attacks carried out by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.” It also confirmed that the explosive was PETN the same compound that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas day bomber, tried to ignite on a flight in Detroit last year. That plot was also linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and put the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on America’s most wanted list.

Unnamed American officials told The Associated Press that they were “increasingly confident” that AQIP was behind this thwarted attack. The group was described by John O. Brennan, the president’s top counter-terrorism adviser in a news conference yesterday as “the most active operational franchise of al Qaeda”. It is led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, once Osama bin Laden’s secretary and now the head of a cell that has been active in several recent foiled attacks and even publishes its own magazine.

Yemen, which has seen in influx of U.S. support to fight terrorism within its borders, has vowed to pursue the latest plot.The Associated Press adds that investigators will begin tracing the would-be bombers at the FedEx and UPS stations in that country. U.S. officials tell the agency that they are worried, however, that sparse record-keeping in those Yemeni shipping offices may thwart them.

British Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed on Saturday that the other potentially deadly package, intercepted at a small airport near the city of Birmingham, “did contain explosive material.” The British government’s emergency committee, known as Cobra, met yesterday, she said, and would reconvene today to review security measures.

Other countries are following suit. Australia, according to a report from the IANS news agency, is now on a heightened terror alert too.


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