Mohammad Huwais/Getty Images
Yemeni security are seen outside a branch of the U.S. package delivery firm UPS in San'a on Saturday.
Yemeni security are seen outside a branch of the U.S. package delivery firm UPS in San'a on Saturday. Mohammad Huwais/Getty Images
A former Guantanamo detainee provided the tip-off that allowed U.S. investigators last week to disable a terrorist plot that placed package bombs on cargo airplanes bound for American soil, sources told NPR on Monday.
Jabir al-Fayfi was a member of al-Qaida and had been imprisoned at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He was later released into Saudi custody and subsequently freed by the Saudis after attending a "re-education program" there, two intelligence sources told NPR. After his release, al-Fayafi reportedly joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a Yemeni-based offshoot of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, the sources said.
Officials said al-Fayfi surrendered to Saudi authorities about two weeks ago and provided them with information about the impending attack.
The Saudis also obtained tracking numbers for the packages that contained the bombs, but it is unclear how they got them. Al-Fayfi could not have been the source for that information, because the packages were mailed after he left Yemen.
This undated image released by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Interior purports to show Ibrahim al-Asiri.
Investigators said the packages — which also contained clothes and Yemeni souvenirs — were meant to look like packages a foreign student might send home at the end of a semester.
No one has taken responsibility for the package bombs, but U.S. officials believe, because of the way the bombs were put together, that AQAP is behind the attack.
Specifically, a 28-year-old Saudi bomb-maker named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a high-ranking member of AQAP, is thought to have designed the devices.
Al-Asiri has been linked to other recent plots by AQAP. He is known to be innovative, and is suspected of having developed the so-called underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
The disclosure comes as U.S. investigators were traveling to Yemen on Monday in search of suspects in last week's foiled bomb plot.
John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, said Monday on CBS's The Early Show that his agency had dispatched security experts to Yemen to provide training and equipment, and to assist with screening cargo leaving that country.
U.S. investigators have said the mail bombs found in the United Arab Emirates and England were headed to two synagogues in Chicago. But British Home Secretary Theresa May said it was possible that the cargo plane carrying the package from Yemen may have been a target, too.
Over the weekend, the White House's top counterterrorism official, deputy national security adviser John Brennan, told Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Saleh that his country should take the lead in responding to the terrorists, a top Yemeni official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
A second package was discovered in Dubai, where white powder explosives were discovered in the ink cartridge of a printer, police said in a statement. The device was rigged to an electric circuit, and a mobile phone chip was hidden inside the printer, the statement said.
"It is unclear in this case if the style of bomb has made [Asiri] a prime suspect or if investigators actually found forensic evidence —- like a fingerprint or a hair —- on the bombs," NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston told Morning Edition.
"He's a creative guy when it comes to bomb delivery systems," she said.
The al-Qaida group has been linked to the bomb plot because of the use of the explosive PETN, which was used by the group in the bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas. U.S. authorities also had intelligence that Yemeni al-Qaida was planning this operation, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The British home secretary told Parliament on Monday that while intelligence officials were unaware of any further bomb plots on aircraft, unaccompanied cargo from Yemen and Somalia still was being banned from British flights. She said airline passengers would not be allowed to carry toner cartridges exceeding 500 grams in hand luggage.
"This organization is very active. It continues to plan other attacks in the region, notably against Saudi Arabia," May said. "We therefore work on the assumption that this organization will wish to continue to find ways of also attacking targets farther afield."
Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty Images
On Sunday, Yemeni youths walk past the house of 22-year-old Hanan Samawi, who was arrested the previous day over an alleged al-Qaida plot that sparked a global air cargo alert, in a suburb of the Yemeni capital San'a.
Two people were detained in Yemen over the weekend, but later released.
Sources tell NPR that the return address and phone number used to send the packages belonged to 22-year-old engineering student Hanan Samawi at the University of San'a — in the capital of Yemen.
So authorities picked her up.
Her mother, who refused to let her be taken away to jail alone, also insisted on accompanying her, so she was detained as well. Authorities later came to believe that someone else was using Samawi's name.
Despite several ill-fated U.S. airstrikes in Yemen since December 2009 that have killed civilians and a Yemeni government official instead of their intended al-Qaida targets, the government of Yemen cooperated with U.S. investigators in efforts to track down terrorists in the country.
Yemen's president acknowledged Saturday that his government is working with the CIA, according to a translation of his remarks by Yemen's embassy in Washington.
Even so, the failed airstrikes have made working together more difficult, according to Gregory Johnsen, who specializes in the study of Yemen at Princeton University.
Instead, it has "backfired on the U.S. and has turned out to be a recruiting field day for al-Qaida," Johnsen told Morning Edition.
As a result, Saleh has been reluctant to allow expanded use of armed drones or regular raids by U.S. special operations units on Yemeni soil, Johnsen said.
While Yemeni officials have complained bitterly about collateral damage from some of the attacks, U.S. administration officials insist the Yemeni government signs off on those missions at the highest level, as part of combined counterterrorist operations.
Those operations are coordinated from an intelligence command center the U.S. runs with the Yemenis, where it shares intelligence gathered by satellite, manned aircraft and unmanned drones — some of which were observed last week, as reported in the Yemeni press.
But Johnsen believes that the White House hasn't taken the threat from Yemen seriously enough.
"We're almost a year out from [the Christmas bomb] ... attempt and there really hasn't been the serious intellectual grappling with diverse and numerous challenges coming out of Yemen coming out of the Obama administration, at least at this point," he said.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.