A broadening multinational investigation seeks to probe the scale of the al Qaeda air freight plot causing mayhem in the international cargo freight system on the assumption that the threat is still viable. Yemen, to which two explosive parcels bound for Chicago synagogues were traced, itself seized more than 30 suspect parcels before they were loaded on outward flights. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Saturday, Oct. 30, that a woman suspected of sending the explosive parcels had been arrested in Sanaa on the basis of US and UAE intelligence.
debkafile's counter-terror sources say Yemeni claims of success should be taken with a pinch of salt. Saleh is eager to show results in his probe as he is under pressure from Washington to show fast results and he has high hopes for financial rewards. Above all, his army is fighting a losing war against Al Qaeda's inroads in Yemen and therefore unlikely to be able to contest the terrorist infrastructure which set up the package plot.
As the multiple investigation got underway, British Home Secretary Theresa May and Dubai police speculated Saturday that the two rigged parcels could have exploded on aircraft before they reached their Chicago addresses.
debkafile reported earlier:
Were it not for a tipoff from Saudi intelligence identifying the UPS and Fedex bomb parcels directed from Yemen to Chicago on separate cargo planes, they would not have been discovered before they blew up. Even so, debkafile's counter-terror sources report, al Qaeda chalked up a coup by successfully penetrating and paralyzing the main intercontinental air mail systems.
The packages taken off planes at the British East Midlands airport and Dubai Friday, Oct. 29, and rendered harmless were affixed to separate detonators– a cell phone SIM card SIM card and a trigger.
President Barack Obama reported a credible terror threat to the United States Friday night and pointed to Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP). He said two Chicago synagogues were targeted, but did not specify to which of the 140 Jewish places of worship in the Chicago area the packages were addressed.
The city is the president's political base. His outgoing chief of staff mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel and his wife attend Anshe Shalom.
The United States, European and Middle East airports went on high terror alert after Washington was informed of a bomb threat to the US by means of air cargoes Thursday night. All the same, local airport security authorities in the US, Britain, Germany, France and Dubai were not aware of the threat and let the packages go through to their destinations. Suspicion was first aroused at the East Midlands airport by a photocopier ink cartridge with wires and white powder. Our sources report it contained PETN (pentaerythritol trinitrate) explosive material disguised by a chemical coating.
This was the same substance used by the "Underpants" bomber Farouk Abdulmuttalab when he failed to blow up a Delta passenger flight last Christmas and "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid nine years ago. After that, cargo planes with freights originating in Yemen were kept back on arrival at Philadelphia and Newark, NJ international airports for thorough screening.
Intensified security measures at all US airports for passengers as well as freight and the public advised to be extra vigilant. Friday, as confusion mounted over the nature of "attack", dozens of alarms were phoned in during the day from different parts of America. They included sightings of two UPS pick-trucks in Queens and Brooklyn, an unaccompanied bag on a street bench which caused part of San Francisco's financial district to be temporarily evacuated and a knapsack outside a courthouse in Portland, Maine.
Linda Haase, the associate vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said Friday that synagogues in the area had been on alert since being informed of a potential threat. She referred to threats to synagogues and the White House and mentioned "black powder." The reference to the White House as later dropped from the report.
Obama's statement stressed that the terror threat was still in force and US security and intelligence services were on guard to protect US citizens, friends and allies. The Transport Security Agency was ordered to intensify security checks at all American airports.
Saturday, the US media disclosed that Saudi intelligence had been the source of the tipoff to Washington about dangerous air freight on its way to the United States providing the consignment numbers of the bomb packages. In the UK, following discovery of the rigged ink cartridge, a new counter-terror center was established with labs for testing suspect articles. Prime Minister David Cameron called the COBRA committee into session to look at the lapses of the British air security system. The suspect package was noted and cleared at East Midlands and sent on its way. It is chaired by the Home Secretary Theresa May as Cameron has a date with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They too are no doubt discussing the ramifications of al Qaeda's air cargo plot
Even after the ink-bomb raised suspicion at East Midlands, major questions remain to be answered:
1. Without the Saudi tipoff, the bomb-parcels would have remained undetected and reached their targets. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has succeeded in breaching the intercontinental air freight system, one of the wheels which makes Western economies go round and can claim a tactical success.
2. Although PETN had been used by failed al Qaeda's bombers on international flights in the past, several airport security agencies at ports on the routes of the cargo flights failed to detect the presence of this explosive substance.
3. While only two packages have been identified as dangerous, there may be more still be found in meticulous sweeps of many tons of freight – or even delivered. Their presence refutes the first theory widely held by terror experts that the plot was a dry run to probe for weak points in the intercontinental air freight system.
4. The imposition of heightened security for air cargo comparable to that applied to passenger traffic would throw the mail industry into chaos, causing extreme financial losses and disrupting an important branch of the Western economy. That too would be accounted by al Qaeda a major success – at very little cost to itself.