Pursuit of mailed bombs a white-knuckle ordeal
The woman stepped off Hadda Street into a pair of courier offices in Yemen’s capital. In FedEx and UPS storefronts tucked along shopping centers and travel agencies in San’a, she mailed two Hewlett-Packard printers to the United States.
She used a fake name, address and phone number. She paid in cash. Then she disappeared.
Hidden inside each printer was a bomb powerful enough to down an airplane.
Authorities believe it was the most sophisticated effort yet by al-Qaida in Yemen to strike inside the United States. Though details are still emerging, a senior U.S. official said evidence points to a plot to blow up cargo planes inside the United States, on runways or over American cities.
Alerted to the plot by Saudi intelligence, security officials chased the two packages across five countries, trying frantically over the next two days to prevent an explosion that could have come at any moment.
Several times, the explosive packages were in plain sight. Twice, a bomb was aboard a passenger plane. Once, authorities were just minutes too late to stop a cargo jet with a bomb from departing for its next destination.
The pursuit — recounted by officials in the United States, Britain, Yemen, Germany and the United Arab Emirates — shows that even when the world’s counterterrorism systems work, preventing an attack is often a terrifyingly close ordeal.
For al-Qaida, the two bombs were a significant upgrade over the small device that failed to detonate inside a passenger’s underwear on a U.S.-bound jet on Christmas. This time, the bombers packed four times the explosives.
Instead of relying on a suicide bomber to ignite the fuse, the bombmaker wired these devices to explode using the alarm function of two cell phones. The phones were wired to syringes full of lead azide, a powder that takes only a small electric charge to explode.
The printer cartridges were filled with PETN, an industrial explosive that, when X-rayed, would resemble the cartridge’s ink powder. Used in heavy construction, PETN is stable enough to endure the jostling of a trans-Atlantic flight but extremely volatile if triggered by a small explosion.
Bomb experts say the cell phone alarm probably would have sent an electrical charge into the syringe, heating a filament and igniting the lead azide. That would trigger the PETN.
U.S. counterterrorism officials believe it was the work of al-Qaida’s master bombmaker in Yemen, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who’s been linked to the Christmas plot.
UPS and FedEx employees screened the packages in Yemen, according to two U.S. officials who, like most people interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
In Yemen, cargo screening is done manually, one official said. Employees looked at the contents of the packages but never took the printer apart.
Both packages were cleared for delivery.
It was a breakdown in the first line of defense in the cargo system. The United States doesn’t inspect international packages until they arrive, relying instead on shipping companies to do the screening.
The addresses on the packages were outdated locations for two Chicago synagogues. The recipients were figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition — historic episodes in which Christians persecuted Muslims.
For these reasons, officials believe al-Qaida never intended the bombs to be delivered and hoped instead for an airplane explosion.
The packages were dropped off Wednesday, Oct. 27. The FedEx bomb was loaded aboard a passenger jet, a Qatar Airways plane that seats 144. It left Yemen on Oct. 28, for Doha, Qatar. The UPS bomb left Yemen early that same evening, headed to Cologne, Germany.
Saudis call CIA
As Thursday evening turned to Friday morning in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the CIA station received an urgent call from Saudi intelligence. Two bombs were being shipped from Yemen, bound for the United States. One was UPS, the other FedEx, and the Saudis had both the tracking numbers.
The AP is not reporting some details about the tip at the request of intelligence and administration officials who said doing so would jeopardize national security.
A senior CIA official in Riyadh relayed the tip to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia.
CIA officials called the White House, and homeland security adviser John Brennan briefed President Obama, who was in his living quarters.
The FBI called FedEx and UPS, which had participated in a government terrorism drill in August. The exercise: A homemade bomb slipped onto a cargo plane.
U.S. and Saudi authorities put Europe on alert. Britain’s intelligence division, MI-6, received a tip through its office in Yemen.
U.S. authorities had been monitoring steady intelligence on a possible attack like this since early September, a U.S. official said. In early October, the United States received a general tip from the Saudis about a possible al-Qaida effort to down airplanes, intelligence officials said.
A month earlier, authorities intercepted a package from Yemen containing papers, books and other items sent to a Chicago-area Muslim bookstore, a senior U.S. official said. At the time, counterterrorism officials thought perhaps the package included coded messages or was intended to set up contact with allies in Chicago, the official said.
Now, investigators believe al-Qaida just wanted to track the package and see how long it took to get into the United States so it could time its bombs more effectively.
The official did not identify the bookstore, but FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigators have recently taken an interest in IQRA International Educational Foundation, a nonprofit Islamic foundation that runs a Chicago-area bookstore.
Financial manager Wahaj Ahmed said last week that IRS auditors showed up about a month ago to inspect the books. That was about the time the foundation received a FedEx envelope from a company wanting to do business with IQRA.
The company was based in Yemen, he said.
The FBI arrived a few days ago, asking questions about the envelope.
“They said anything emanating from that area, they were tracking it,” Ahmed said.
Explosive at airport
With U.S. intelligence on notice, officials in Saudi Arabia summoned the local liaison for Germany’s Federal Criminal Police into a meeting to discuss the bombs.
When the meeting began, a senior German official said, it was 1:34 a.m. Friday in Germany and the UPS bomb was sitting at the airport in Cologne, waiting to leave for England.
The liaison officer hurriedly called Germany, and authorities rushed to stop the plane. At 2:40 a.m., police ordered that the package could not leave the country.
It was too late. The cargo plane had taken off 36 minutes earlier.
There had never been a chance to spot the bomb in Germany. UPS is among several “safe” companies, German officials said, so the packages weren’t inspected.
The bombs were later discovered in Dubai and England.