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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cargo Bomb Larger Threat Than Christmas Day Plot

Parcel Bombs 4 Times Larger Than Christmas Plot

Al-Qaida's top bombmaker raised his game, officials believe, by following his miss on a crowded U.S.-bound passenger jet last Christmas with four times more explosives packed into bombs hidden last week on flights from Yemen.

The two bombs contained 300 and 400 grams of the industrial explosive PETN, according to a German security official, who briefed reporters Monday in Berlin on condition of anonymity in line with department guidelines. By comparison, the bomb stuffed into a terrorist suspect's underwear on the Detroit-bound plane contained about 80 grams.

Early forensics on the two bombs packed inside computer printer cartridges point to Ibrahim al-Asiri, the master bomb maker for the Yemen-based group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

"It shows that they are trying to again make different types of adaptations based on what we have put in place," said John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser. "So the underwear bomber, as well as these packages, are showing sort of new techniques on their part. They are very innovative and creative."

Al-Qaida's propaganda machine remained unusually silent about the attacks Monday as U.S. counterterrorism officials looked for new ways to root out the Yemen-based group. Its members number about 300 people hidden in an area of rugged, desert twice the size of Wyoming.

U.S. counterterrorism teams headed for Yemen to hunt for suspects in a plot that revealed security gaps in the worldwide shipping network and reminded the West that al-Qaida was constantly looking to exploit those gaps.

With the U.S. already deeply involved in Yemen's fight against terrorism, it was not immediately obvious how to effectively increase military and intelligence efforts in the impoverished country.

Increased Scrutiny

The U.S. and its allies Monday further tightened scrutiny of shipments from Yemen. U.S. counterterrorism officials warned police and emergency personnel to be on the watch for mail with characteristics that could mean dangerous substances are hidden inside.

And Germany's aviation authority extended its ban on air cargo from Yemen to include passenger flights. Britain banned the import of larger printer cartridges by air on Monday as it also announced broader measures to halt air cargo from Yemen and Somalia following the ink cartridge bomb plot.

The Dutch anti-terrorism agency banned all airborne post and freight from Yemen entering the Netherlands.

The exposed plot could fuel calls for the wider use of imaging technology designed to detect explosives, which is not standard, but freight firms are reluctant to bear the full cost.

Tighter international air cargo security rules could deal a blow to trade and the world economy as it recovers from the global recession. According to airlines association IATA, about 35 percent of the value of world trade is carried by air.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine, said new technology would not eliminate the risk or airline attacks.

"The only thing that has prevented things has either been good luck or people," he told Reuters.

Yemeni authorities on Monday continued to hunt for suspects tied to the mail bomb plot, but a young woman arrested soon after the attacks were thwarted was released. Investigators there said someone had stolen her identity and used it to mail the package.

U.S. and British officials said they believed planes were the targets, not the two Chicago-area synagogues named on the addresses. Exactly how the bombs would have worked, however, remains a focus of investigators. One package was wired to a timer. A second was wired to a cell phone.

Activating a bomb by cell phone while a plane is in midair is unreliable because cell service is spotty or nonexistent at high altitudes. Further complicating the plot, it be would unlikely for terrorists in Yemen to know which planes the bombs had been loaded onto and when they were airborne.

With U.S.-bound cargo out of Yemen temporarily frozen, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said Monday the U.S. would provide Yemen with new screening equipment for cargo. Yemen has promised to step up its security at airports.

The U.S. had been monitoring intelligence on an al-Qaida mail bomb plot for days when a specific tip came in from Saudi Arabia, identifying tracking numbers for the packages. A Yemeni official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, identified Jabir al-Faifi, a Saudi militant who had joined al-Qaida in Yemen, as the tipster.

Tipster's Role Unclear

It's unclear, however, what level of detail al-Faifi provided. He was captured in Yemen last month and was turned over to the Saudis before the packages were mailed, making it unlikely he would have known the tracking numbers.

Nobody, including the Internet-savvy al-Qaida group in Yemen, has taken credit for the failed attack. Jihadist Web sites contained numerous messages praising the attempted bombing but nothing official from the group's leadership. The group claimed credit for the Christmas attack three days later.

Though al-Qaida core is based in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan, offshoot groups have sprung up in other countries, including Yemen and Algeria. The Yemen group is the most active affiliate and has become a leader in recruiting and propaganda, especially in the West thanks to its English-speaking, U.S.-born spokesman, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The U.S. is providing some $300 million in military, humanitarian and development aid to Yemen this year, according to State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin. About half of that is for military equipment and training, including some 50 special-operations trainers for Yemeni counterterror teams.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that the U.S. would not reduce that aid in response to the failed attack.

The FBI, Pentagon and CIA all have people on the ground in Yemen, working with counterterrorism officials in Yemen. A military and intelligence campaign, financed and directed by the U.S., to target al-Qaida has had mixed results.

Brennan said Yemeni cooperation is better than it has ever been but still could be better. The failed bombing will put added pressure on Yemen to go even further, perhaps by allowing additional U.S. troops or airstrikes within its border.

In Wake Of Cargo Plot, U.S. Weighs Options On Yemen

The Obama administration is having a series of high-level meetings on how to approach the situation in Yemen this week in the wake of a plot to send bombs from Yemen to the United States, senior U.S. officials said.

The discussions will address a variety of issues on security and the scale and pace of aid.

But officials say last week's incidents have first and foremost highlighted the vulnerabilities in aviation and maritime security in Yemen. They say the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are on the verge of instituting a new program, the details of which were actually agreed to before last week. Officials describe the plan, which will be run by DHS but paid for by the State Department, as a program to train, equip and assist Yemen with aviation and maritime security in a more effective way.

While the Transportation Security Administration already has the mandate to provide secondary screening of passengers bound for the United States and to screen all air cargo, the Obama administration is increasingly worried about gaps in the system that could leave the United States vulnerable. These gaps are related less to technology and more about corruption and capacity within the Yemeni government, officials said.

"It's not just about people and cargo," one official said. "You can have all the X-ray machines you want, but if someone is paid to turn the machine off at the right time, that doesn't do one bit of good."

As part of the plan, TSA will have a long-term presence in Yemen for the next few years, the officials said. In addition to providing more equipment and coaching of Yemeni authorities on how to screen cargo, the U.S. personnel will also be working with the Yemen's interior ministry to vet new hires.

Officials describe a vibrant debate within the administration on the right balance between military aid and development assistance in aiding Yemen in its wider counterterrorism efforts.

Officials at U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the region, have proposed a $1.2 billion package of military equipment and training over the next six years. But some outside of the military believe the United States is already giving an appropriate level of military assistance to Yemen, including the frequency of drone strikes.

The United States has already ramped up its assistance to Yemen over the past several years. Baseline U.S. assistance to Yemen increased from $17.2 million in fiscal year 2008 to $67.5 million in 2010. President Obama has already requested around $106.6 in baseline assistance for FY 2011.

U.S. counterterrorism assistance has more than doubled over the past year from $67 million in FY 2009 to $150.5 million in FY 2010.

Officials said that much of this year's assistance has only recently been obligated, and new programs are in the process of being implemented.

U.S. Special Forces troops have expanded the type of training they're giving to Yemen's military, while adding more special operations forces to the training mission there.

A defense official with knowledge of the counterterrorism effort calls it "more complex training," that combines air support with tactical operations on the ground. He says the top number of special operations forces in Yemen number "no more than 50, but the exact number constantly fluctuates with specific operations."

Earlier this year Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved spending $150 million to train and equip Yemen's security forces, specifically so they can fight al Qaeda. That includes helicopters, planes and other equipment -- and more than doubles the amount of aid the U.S. military authorized in 2009. A senior defense official says the United States and Yemen have shared surveillance and intelligence on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula activity inside the country.

"This doesn't really change the calculus on the military or operation side," another official said. "Most folks feel we are already doing what we need to be doing."

The United States is also expanding its intelligence operations in Yemen with more operatives and analysts working closely with the Yemen government and other U.S. partners inside Yemen, a U.S. official said. The increased focus on Yemen predates the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit.

U.S. officials had said earlier this year that there were ongoing discussions at the White House about what the level of CIA activity should be in Yemen, including the possibility of having the CIA mount a drone operation in Yemen similar to the one in Pakistan that has led to the deaths of a number of al Qaeda operatives who were the targets of the missiles fired from the unmanned planes.

However, any decision to pursue such an action would most likely require the approval of Yemen's president, who this past weekend indicated his country would not accept foreign intervention in tracking down al Qaeda.

Officials at the White House and State Department are concerned that increasing the size of military assistance might be counterproductive and not absolutely necessary. There is also concern that Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh will use U.S. weapons against his political enemies and further destabilize the country.

Some favor a more modest approach that provides counterterrorism aid, including training and equipment as part of a broader plan to promote development and stability in the country.

Officials do note Yemeni forces have stepped up attacks against militants over the past year, and especially since the failed Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight by Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained in Yemen.

But they say while the Yemeni government has reaffirmed its commitment to fighting militants, there is still concern about the lack of political will by President Saleh in launching a full-scale assault against al Qaeda.

They acknowledge a variety of challenges to giving aid to Yemen, including corruption, transparency and the weak capacity of the government of President Saleh, whose country is the poorest in the Arab world and which is facing a violent separatist movement in the south as well as a rebellion in the northwest. That is why the State Department has called for more training of Yemeni police, security services prosecutors, intelligence officers and working with the Yemeni government to pass relevant laws.

Officials warn that unless the United States helps develop Yemen, the country risks becoming a failed state, which would allow Al Qaeda to operate with complete impunity.

"It's not just training, it involves mentoring and advising," one official said. "Of course we need to and will help with the immediate security, but we have to work even harder on the big-picture development issues that are making Yemen even more of a longer-term threat than the threat posted by the immediate short-term issues."

Yemen Parcel Bombmaker Believed To Be Al-Qaeda Terrorist Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri

US Intelligence Officials say the detonator on one of the devices is almost exactly the same as one he is thought to have made for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Underpants Bomber.

Originally born to a pious family in Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim is one of 85 people on the kingdom's list of wanted terrorists. After serving jail time in his home country, he fled to neighbouring Yemen two years ago with his brother Abdullah to become key members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has bases in the lawless mountain areas beyond the writ of central government.

The slightly-built 28-year-old, who is the son of a retired soldier, is believed to be the movement's resident bombmaking expert - skills he first put to chilling use in a suicide attack in which he recruited his own younger brother, Abdullah, 23, to act as the "martyr".

The attack was an audacious attempt on the life of the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior, Prince Muhammad Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, who has personally led an innovative programme in the kingdom to encourage jihadis to reform.

Posing as a jihadist keen to repent, Abdullah gained a private audience with Prince Muhammad in his office, and then detonated a bomb hidden in his own body. It failed to kill the prince but killed Abdullah, who is believed to have been brainwashed into believing in jihadist ideology by his brother.

Following on from sacrificing his own sibling, Ibrahim Asiri is believed to have designed the underwear bomb used by Abdulmutallab in his failed mid-air attack on an airliner over Detroit last Christmas.

US intelligence believes that Ibrahim is now in regular contact with the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is likewise on the run in Yemen. Known as the the so-called "YouTube" jihadist, sermons by al-Awlaki posted on the internet are believed to have seduced hundreds of new recruits into joining al Qaeda.

One serving US intelligence officer told The Sunday Telegraph that there was now debate underway about pressuring Yemen into allowing the CIA to base armed drone aircraft there for a sustained attack on al Qaeda bases.

This would be a similar offensive to the one that has been underway for some time against al Qaeda militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, although it carries the risk of backfiring if civilian casualties are sustained.

Drone attacks have already been used in Yemen from time to time, but the inability so far of Yemen's weak government to reign in the militants means Washington believes such strikes may have to beefed up.

Yesterday, the atmosphere the Yemeni capital, San'aa, was tense, with traffic jams across the city as police and soldiers manned additional checkpoints and vehicle searches. Nestling in mountains, the ancient capital already has many hallmarks of a city frequently wracked by terrorist violence. Toyota pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns guard courthouses and government buildings, and the US and British embassies - both of which have been directly attacked in the past two years - are virtual fortresses encircled by 20 foot high bombproof walls. It was, however, business as usual at the San'aa bureaus of Fedex and UPS, the two international delivery companies via whom the bombs bound for Chicago were posted. The two firms both have shabby offices on Hadda Street, a busy thoroughfare frequented by young Yemenis and expats. Nervous-looking staff at both branches declined to comment on the investigation when approached by The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, although outside the office of Fedex a group of private security guards appeared to be on watch.

For ordinary Yemenis, who are now used to terrorist violence on a daily basis, news of the latest terror plot has been greeted with little more than a resigned shrug. "If Yemen's on the news it means more police and more checkpoints on the streets the next day," moaned one taxi driver.

Yesterday, the Yemeni authorities were questioning cargo workers at the airport and employees of the local shipping companies contracted to work with FedEx. However, while the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has pledged his full co-operation with the US authorities, the reaction of other Yemeni officials to the parcel bomb plot so far has been to downplay the incident.

A statement distributed by Saba, the government's official news agency, warned the media against "rush decisions in a case as sensitive as this one and before investigations reveal the truth."

It claimed that security measures at Yemeni airports had been tightened, with modern screening systems introduced for all flights. At the airport yesterday, where extra security guards were on duty, employees claimed to be bemused by the plot claim.

"There is no way these packages could have come from Sana'a airport," said worker Abdul Rowi. "We check every single bag, we have no idea how these packages entered the airport."

According to a senior governmental official who spoke to the Yemen Post, Yemeni security forces arrested two local women under suspicion of sending the packages to the United States.

The Yemeni official claimed that the two women sent the packages in order to damage the reputation of Yemen rather than on Al-Qaeda's account. That report, however, appears to conflict with British and US claims that the bombs were viable devices, leading some to describe it as a crude attempt at news management by the Yemeni authorities.

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Sources: CNN, MSNBC,,, Youtube, Google Maps

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