Zeroing In On Bomb Plot Suspects

U.S. authorities are looking for suspects linked to the package bombs that were bound for the U.S. last week. The packages were addressed to two Jewish institutions in Chicago, but were intercepted in the United Kingdom and Dubai. The bombs were hidden inside HP computer printers — in each case, the toner inside the printer cartridge was emptied out and replaced with a powerful explosive. That's one of the reasons why the bombs were hard to detect.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On a Monday morning, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

U.S. authorities are still searching for suspects linked to two package bombs sent from Yemen and addressed to Jewish organizations in Chicago. Two women detained in Yemen have turned out not to be connected. That terrorist attack was foiled when two packages were intercepted in Dubai and Britain. They contained computer printers, and the toner inside the printer cartridges had been replaced with powerful explosives.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been tracking the story for us and she's here now with the latest.

Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with suspects in the case. I mean, first, what happened with these two women that had been, you know, reported on over the weekend?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, sources tell me that turned out to be a false alarm. Apparently the return address and phone number used to send the packages, all the information that you usually have to fill out on an overnight delivery form, it belonged to a 22-year-old engineering student at the University of Sana'a in the capital of Yemen.

So authorities picked her up and her name is Hanan Samawi. And sources tell me that her mother refused to let the authorities take her daughter away alone, so she insisted on accompanying her. So that's why we heard that two people were arrested. There were some reports about her boyfriend or husband being part of al-Qaida in Yemen - those are false. The second person detained was her mother and they were both, as you say, released yesterday.

Apparently the shopkeeper who accepted the packages came to a line-up to identify Samawi. And he said she wasn't the person who came into his shop to send the packages. Someone had used her name. So now they're looking for the woman who did mail the packages.

MONTAGNE: And does this mean that the investigation is back to square one?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, not exactly. I mean they're zeroing in, now, on a bomb maker from al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. This is an organization called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. And his name is Ibrahim Asiri. He's 28. He's a Saudi national. And apparently he's a high-ranking member of AQAP.

MONTAGNE: And why him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, U.S. officials say that Asiri was the bomb maker for the past three plots by AQAP. It's unclear, in this case, if it's the style of bomb that makes him a prime suspect, or if investigators actually found forensic evidence, like a fingerprint or a hair, on the bombs. But he's a really creative guy when it comes to bomb delivery systems.

He's thought to be behind the assassination attempt of the Saudi intelligence chief a little more than a year ago. He actually sent his brother, who was also part of AQAP, to the Saudis, saying he wanted to surrender, but would only surrender to the intelligence chief. And when he gets into the same room with the intelligence chief, he actually detonates an explosive that was hidden inside his body so, you know, security wouldn't find it. He was killed and the Saudi intelligence chief survived.

Asiri apparently also came up with the so-called Underwear Bomb, the explosives that were sewn into the underwear of that young Nigerian who tried to bring down the Detroit plane last Christmas. The explosive in that case was PETN, and that's the same explosive that was used in this case.

So none of these plots have worked yet, but it appears he's good and creative at making bombs - he just hasn't had a successful attack yet.

MONTAGNE: Well, then what about this particular plot? We heard authorities are looking for other packages. Does that mean the threat is not over?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they want to account for every U.S.-bound package coming out of Yemen in the last couple of weeks, out of an abundance of caution. They have about 26 of them identified and they've cleared about half of those for explosives. In other words, they're just innocuous packages from Yemen. So I'd say the threat is diminished. But there's still lot of things they don't understand about this plot.

You know, over the weekend, the British home secretary and various U.S. officials said they believed that cargo planes carrying the packages may well have been the targets for the bombs. And then we've also found out that, in fact, some passenger planes were carrying some of the bombs before they went to cargo planes. They're just not sure.

I mean, one of the reasons they aren't sure is that the two bombs have design differences. And they're both package bombs filled with PETN, but their detonators are different. One package had a circuit board with a cell phone hookup that could have been ignited with a phone call. The other package had some sort of timer.

So investigators are wondering why there would have been two different kinds of bombs for one kind of target. So they're still holding open the possibility that they were intended for these Chicago Jewish institutions they were addressed to, and they are still trying to work that out.

I think once they get all that worked out and all these various things accounted for, I think they'll breathe a little easier.

MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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