Suspect In Custody As Bomb Investigation Goes On

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The investigation into last week's attempted cargo bombing is proceeding Sunday on three continents. Intelligence and law enforcement officials are scrambling in the United States, in Britain and on the Arabian Peninsula to determine who was responsible for the package bombs discovered at an airport in Britain and aboard a plane in Dubai. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Tom Gjelten.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The investigation into this past week's attempted cargo bombing is proceeding today on three continents: here in the United States, in Britain, and on the Arabian Peninsula. Intelligence and law enforcement officials are scrambling to determine who was responsible for the package bombs discovered at an airport in Britain and aboard a plane in Dubai. British officials say they believe the bombs were intended to go off in mid-flight, but U.S. officials aren't so sure.

NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is following the story and in our D.C. studio. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Officials in Yemen yesterday said they've taken into custody a young women and her mother, both believed to have a role in this attempted bombing. What does it suggest to you?

GJELTEN: Well, it suggests, Liane, that the Yemeni authorities want to show they're cooperating, but it's far from clear what responsibility this young woman had. She's a 22-year-old computer engineering student from a university in Yemen. Authorities think she may have had a role in mailing those packages. They apparently traced her or tracked her through a phone number that she allegedly left. And as you say, they also detained her mother. Not at all clear what that was about.

The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said that the authorities there acted on intelligence partly from U.S. officials. We know there are U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials in Yemen now working on this case. They do have some information about who mailed these packages based on tracking numbers, return addresses. But Yemeni authorities are also saying - cautiously - that documents have probably been forged, so I think it's way too soon to say that they are on track to find out who was responsible.

HANSEN: What more do you know about the bombs themselves and the intended targets?

GJELTEN: The bombs are very sophisticated. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yesterday these bombs have all the hallmarks of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaida group in Yemen there. British officials say they think that these bombs could have actually brought down a plane if they had gone off in mid-flight. And they think that was the idea.

In this regard, Liane, there's a report this morning from Qatar Airways that one of the bombs - the one found in Dubai - actually traveled on two passenger flights. So, even though it was cargo, if it had exploded in mid-flight, it could theoretically have brought down a passenger plane. The question is how. In order for a bomb like this to go off in mid-flight, considering it was in cargo, it would have had to have some kind of automatic detonator built into it, like an altimeter switch that would set it off at a certain altitude or a timer.

U.S. officials are not ready to say that. The one thing they will not talk about here is what kind of trigger mechanism was in these bombs, in these packages. We know they were addressed to synagogues in Chicago. But if the idea was to for them to explode at those synagogues, they would have, again, had to be some kind of device to explode it when it opened up. We just don't know what the trigger mechanism was here, therefore we can't say what the idea was, what the target was.

HANSEN: How was this attack avoided? I mean, it sounds like a very successful interception of what could have been a deadly attack.

GJELTEN: It appears, Liane, that it really required a tip, and here's why: the explosive powder that was packed into these toner cartridges was - apparently the idea was to hide it from scanning. Now, you know, toner cartridges normally would have powder in them. So, perhaps the idea here is that by substituting explosive powder for the ink powder, they would have been able to avoid scanning.

But we know there was a tip from Saudi intelligence officials that these bombs were there and coming, and that was how they tracked it down.

HANSEN: NPR's correspondent Tom Gjelten, in our Washington, D.C. studio. Tom, thank you very much.

GJELTEN: Any time, Liane.

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