Package Bombing Probe Focuses On Yemen's Al-Qaida The thwarted bombing attempt prompted tightened security at airports around the globe and had President Obama conferring with key allies Saturday. Officials said they have accounted for all the suspicious packages in the U.S. The search now is for any suspect packages in Yemen and Europe awaiting delivery to the United States.
NPR logo Package Bombing Probe Focuses On Yemen's Al-Qaida

Package Bombing Probe Focuses On Yemen's Al-Qaida

Security is in evidence at Duesseldorf International Airport in Germany on Saturday. Authorities on three continents thwarted multiple terrorist attacks aimed at the United States from Yemen, seizing two explosive packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues and packed aboard cargo jets. The plot triggered worldwide fears that al-Qaida was launching a major new terror campaign. Frank Augstein/AP hide caption

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Frank Augstein/AP

A day after two explosive-laden air cargo packages from Yemen were intercepted on their way to the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saturday that the plot has "the hallmarks of al-Qaida." The thwarted bombing attempt set off a global terrorism alert and reignited a debate over the security measures used for cargo coming into the U.S.

Heard On 'Weekend Edition'

Yemeni security forces arrested a woman on Saturday suspected of involvement in the bombing plot, wire services reported. President Ali Abdullah Saleh told reporters in San'a, Yemen's capital, that the United States and the United Arab Emirates had provided him with information that identified the woman as a suspect.

President Obama, on the campaign trail just three days ahead of the midterm elections, phoned key allies on Saturday to thank them for their help in derailing the plot.

Law enforcement officials are still trying to fill in the gaps in a global investigation. They are focused not only on who might have sent the packages, addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago, but also on whether other package bombs are awaiting delivery overseas.

A 'Viable' Bomb

Officials tell NPR that they have accounted for all the suspicious packages in the U.S. The search now is for any suspect packages in Yemen and Europe that are awaiting delivery to the United States.

One of the packages was found in a UPS distribution center in Britain's East Midlands Airport and the other was intercepted on a FedEx plane in Dubai. Both the packages contained toner cartridges that had been filled with explosives and then wired for detonation. One had a cell phone circuit attached to it and the other had a timer.

British Home Secretary Theresa May told reporters in London on Saturday that the bomb seized in England was "viable'' and could have brought down an aircraft had it exploded.

However, it was unclear whether the explosive packages were intended to detonate on board airplanes or at their destinations.

Obama told reporters Friday that the packages represented a "credible terrorist threat" to the United States.

Al-Qaida In The Arabian Peninsula

A United Parcel Service jet sat isolated on a runway at Philadelphia International Airport on Friday after reports of a suspicious package. Matt Rourke/AP hide caption

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Matt Rourke/AP

In television interviews Saturday, Napolitano placed the blame squarely on of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, which goes by the name al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

"I think we would agree with that, that it does contain all the hallmarks of al-Qaida and in particular al-Qaida [in the Arabian Peninsula]," Napolitano said.

Officials familiar with the investigation say that the Saudis provided the package tracking numbers to the U.S. so the two bombs could quickly be located. It was unclear whether there are other package bombs with tracking numbers that are either still being searched for or haven't been made public.

Overnight, authorities in Dubai confirmed that the package they found contained a printer toner cartridge filled with the explosive PETN.

PETN is in the same chemical family as nitroglycerine and is the same explosive sewn into the underwear of a young Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound transatlantic airliner on Christmas Day. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, took credit for that attack.

No one has taken responsibility for the two package bombs, but there are many factors, aside from the type of explosive chosen, that point to AQAP.

The package bombs were tracked by U.S. authorities on the basis of information from Saudi intelligence.

The Saudis, in the words of one intelligence official, are on top of AQAP "like white on rice" and would have been the most likely intelligence agency to get specific information on the group. The Saudis are so focused on AQAP because the group has made plain that its main target is the Saudi monarchy.

AQAP is also known for its creative bomb-making techniques. A little more than a year ago, the group tried to kill the Saudi intelligence chief by sending one of its high-ranking members to meet with him.

The operative lured the intelligence chief out into the open by saying he wanted to surrender. The AQAP operative had a bomb hidden in his rectum. He detonated it when he was in the same room with the Saudi chief.

The plan didn't work. The operative's body absorbed most of the blast, and the Saudi intelligence chief survived.

Officials say that the attempt provides a glimpse of just what AQAP is capable of. The assassination attempt made the Saudis redouble their efforts against the group.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been in the U.S. cross hairs since last December. There have been raids by local law enforcement in Yemen and dozens of American missile strikes on suspected group hideouts.

The Obama administration's top terrorism official, John Brennan, called the group al-Qaida's most active affiliate.

American Recruits

The group particularly worries U.S. officials because it has two high-profile Americans as members.

Yemenis walk past the UPS office in the capital San'a on Saturday. Yemeni authorities are searching for the people who tried to ship two bombs from Yemen to Chicago-area synagogues. AP hide caption

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Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric, is thought to have inspired the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings last year and allegedly helped train the Christmas Day bomber. He was put on the CIA's capture or kill list earlier this year.

Another American, a 25-year-old North Carolina man named Samir Khan, is also thought to be a member of the group. He left the U.S. last October en route to Yemen and a short time later disappeared. He is thought to be the editor of AQAP's English-language online magazine Inspire.

Intelligence officials say the pair represents a special threat to the U.S. because they have joined forces with the group and bring to AQAP a great deal of knowledge about how things work in America, giving it an advantage over other extremist groups.

As to the question of timing, U.S. officials believe whoever sent the packages may have been motivated by the upcoming midterm elections. Osama bin Laden has made a habit in recent years of releasing video or audio tapes just ahead of U.S. elections in a bid to influence their outcome. Officials say that might have been the case here, too.