Yemen: Woman suspected of mailing bombs released

Qatar Airways says one of two bombs mailed from Yemen to Chicago synagogues was on passenger flights within ME before it was discovered.

Qatar Airways Plane 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Qatar Airways Plane 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
One of two powerful bombs mailed from Yemen to Chicago-area synagogues traveled on passenger flights within the Middle East, a Qatar Airways spokesman said Sunday. The US said the plot bears the hallmarks of al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen and has vowed to destroy the group.
The airline spokesman said a package containing explosives hidden in a printer cartridge arrived in Qatar Airways' hub in the capital Doha on a flights from Yemen — an Airbus A320 which can carry up to 144 passengers.
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It was then shipped on a separate Qatar Airways plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it was discovered by authorities late Thursday or early Friday. A second, similar package turned up in England on Friday.
The airline spokesman disclosed the information on condition of anonymity in line with the company's standing policies on conversations with the media.
The plot was the latest to expose persistent security gaps in international air travel and cargo shipping nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and showed extremists appear to be probing those vulnerabilities.
"The security gap is now for things leaving Yemen," said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "On the Yemeni side, they'll have a lot to answer for to regain their credibility."
Yemeni authorities have taken several people into custody for questioning, including a young student whose telephone number was used to register the packages. She has since been conditionally released into her father's custody.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser John Brennan said authorities "have to presume" there might be more potential mail bombs like the ones pulled from planes in England and the United Arab Emirates.
US inspectors were heading to Yemen to monitor cargo security practices and pinpoint holes in the system. An internal report, obtained by The Associated Press, said the team of six inspectors from the Transportation Security Administration will give Yemeni officials recommendations and training to improve cargo security.
"We're trying to get a better handle on what else may be out there," Brennan told NBC's "Meet the Press" as he made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. "We're trying to understand better what we may be facing."
Brennan noted that because of the continuing threat, the world's largest package delivery companies — FedEx and UPS — have suspended air freight from Yemen.
The explosives, addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, were pulled off airplanes in England and the United Arab Emirates early Friday morning after intelligence officials were tipped off about them, touching off a tense search for other devices.
The package that was stopped in London was nearly caught when it passed through the UPS hub in Cologne, Germany after police there received a tip-off, said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere Sunday.
By the time German officials received the tip, however, the package was already en route to Britain, and they had to alert their British colleagues.
Germany has now stopped all package deliveries from Yemen.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he believes the device was intended to detonate on the plane, while Home Secretary Theresa May said the bomb was powerful enough to down the aircraft.
A US official and a British security consultant said Sunday that the device in England nearly slipped past investigators even after they were tipped off, suggesting it was sophisticated enough to escape notice.
Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, called it "a very sophisticated device, in terms of how it was constructed, how it was concealed" and said it was a viable device.
"They were self-contained. They were able to be detonated at a time of the terrorists' choosing," Brennan said, adding that officials are trying to determine whether the planes or the synagogues were the intended targets.
Qatar Airways said the explosives could not have been detected by X-ray or bomb-sniffing dogs and would not have been discovered without the intelligence tip-off.
Al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen is suspected of mailing the bombs. The group was behind a failed bombing on a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas that bore some of the same hallmarks as this plot.
Yemeni police late on Sunday released Hanan al-Samawi, 22, a female computer engineering student suspected of mailing the packages. She was detained Saturday after her telephone number appeared on one of the packages.
Police said the release was conditional and she could still be taken in for further questioning.
According to a Yemeni security official, at least five other suspects have been arrested and interrogated since Saturday over who might be behind the mail bombs and a number of employees of the shipping companies, including two from FedEx, are being investigated.
Yemen is also asking for more information from Saudi Arabia, which the US said provided the tip-off which thwarted the bombing.
Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation unfolding on three continents.
US officials said suspects in the plot include the bomb-maker suspected of designing the explosive used in the failed Christmas airliner bombing. The bombmaker is a key operative in al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
"They are a dangerous group," Brennan said of al-Qaida in Yemen "They are a determined group. They are still at war with us and we are very much at war with them."
He said the US "will destroy that organization as we are going to destroy the rest of al-Qaida."
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the failed bomb last Christmas that used PETN, an industrial explosive that was also in the mail bombs found Friday.
Brennan said forensic analysis indicates that this bomb-maker also constructed the devices used in the failed bombing on a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas and the attack on Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism chief last year, Brennan said.
US intelligence officials believe the suspected bomb-maker is a Saudi named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, living in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia said Asiri recruited his brother for a suicide attack against the counter-terrorism chief, attaching the bomb to his groin or placing it inside his body. The official survived.
Brennan said the person who assembled these devices is "clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience and we need to find him and we need to bring him to justice."
The US was already on the lookout for a mail bomb plot after learning terrorists in Yemen were interested in "exploring an operation involving cargo planes," a US counter-terrorism official said.
US authorities then acted quickly after receiving a tip "that suspicious packages may be en route to the US" — specifically Chicago — the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Brennan also said that in light of the bombs found Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board and terrorism investigators were re-examining the UPS cargo jet that crashed in Dubai in September.
Investigators in the United Arab Emirates said Sunday there was no evidence that an explosion caused that crash.