Planes’ bombs were 4 times stronger than ’09 attempt

Analysts credit Qaeda expert with creativity; US, allies tighten cargo scrutiny

ALERT ON BOMBS A Yemeni official identified Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi militant, as the tipster who helped thwart the mail-bomb plot. ALERT ON BOMBS
A Yemeni official identified Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi militant, as the tipster who helped thwart the mail-bomb plot.
By Geir Moulson
Associated Press / November 2, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s top bombmaker raised his game, officials believe, by following his miss on a crowded US-bound passenger jet last Christmas with four times more explosives packed into bombs hidden last week on flights from Yemen.

The two bombs contained 300 and 400 grams of the industrial explosive PETN, according to a German security official who briefed reporters yesterday in Berlin on condition of anonymity, in line with department guidelines. By comparison, the bomb in a terror suspect’s underwear on the Detroit-bound plane contained about 80 grams.

Early forensics on the two bombs packed inside computer printer cartridges point to Ibrahim al-Asiri, the master bomb maker for the Yemen-based group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“It shows that they are trying to again make different types of adaptations based on what we have put in place,’’ said John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. “So the underwear bomber, as well as these packages, are showing sort of new techniques on their part. They are very innovative and creative.’’

Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine remained unusually silent yesterday about the attacks as US counterterrorism officials looked for new ways to root out the Yemen-based group. Its members are thought to number about 300 people, hidden in an area of rugged desert twice the size of Wyoming.

US counterterrorism teams headed for Yemen to hunt for suspects in the plot, which has revealed security gaps in the worldwide shipping network and reminded the West that Al Qaeda is likely to exploit those gaps.

The United States and its allies yesterday further tightened scrutiny of cargo shipments from Yemen. US counterterrorism officials warned police and emergency personnel to be on the watch for mail with characteristics that could mean dangerous substances are hidden inside.

Britain banned the import of larger printer cartridges by air yesterday, and it also announced broader measures to halt unattended air freight from Yemen and Somalia after the ink cartridge bomb plot.

Although the devices identified in the plot originated in Yemen, a ban on freight flights from Somalia was needed because of a possible link between terrorists in the two countries, the British home secretary, Theresa May, told Parliament yesterday. Britain banned all freight from Yemen after the discovery of one of the devices at a British airport Friday. Another was found in Dubai.

Germany’s aviation authority extended its ban on air cargo from Yemen to include passenger flights.

The United States had been monitoring intelligence on an Al Qaeda mail bomb plot for days when a specific tip came in from Saudi Arabia, identifying tracking numbers for the packages. A Yemeni official, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday because of the ongoing investigation, identified Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi militant who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen, as the tipster.

It is unclear, however, what level of detail Fayfi may have provided. He was captured in Yemen last month and was turned over to the Saudis before the packages were mailed, making it unlikely he would have known the tracking numbers.

Fayfi, who is in his mid-30s and is known as Abu Jaafar al-Ansari, was captured by US forces in Afghanistan after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban there. According to documents from Guantanamo, he spent time at Osama bin Laden’s hideaway at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in November-December 2001, during a US air assault on the Al Qaeda mountain stronghold.

Fayfi was held at Guantanamo until early 2007, when he was released to Saudi Arabia. There, he was put through the kingdom’s rehabilitation program for militants.

But soon after leaving the program, he fled to Yemen and joined Al Qaeda, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

In September, he contacted Saudi authorities, saying he wanted to turn himself in. A private jet was sent to the capital of Sana to bring him to Riyadh, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.

Yemeni authorities continued to hunt for suspects tied to the mail bomb plot, but a young woman who was arrested soon after the attacks were thwarted was released. Investigators there said someone had stolen her identity and used it to mail the package.

US and British officials have said they believe planes were the targets, not the two Chicago-area synagogues named on the addresses. Exactly how the bombs would have worked, however, remains a focus of investigators. One package was wired to a timer. A second was wired to a cellphone.

Activating a bomb by cellphone while a plane is in midair is unreliable because cell service is spotty or nonexistent at high altitudes. Further complicating the plot, it would be unlikely for terrorists in Yemen to know which planes the bombs had been loaded onto and when they were airborne.

With US-bound cargo out of Yemen temporarily frozen, the Transportation Security Administration said yesterday the United States would provide Yemen with new screening equipment for cargo. Yemen has promised to step up its security at airports.

The FBI, Pentagon, and CIA all have people on the ground in Yemen, working with the local counterterrorism officials. A military and intelligence campaign, financed and directed by the United States to target Al Qaeda, has had mixed results.

Though Al Qaeda’s core is based in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan, offshoot groups have sprung up in other countries, including Yemen and Algeria. The Yemen group is the most active affiliate.