Officials: AQAP bomb plot was narrowly avertedAuthorities indicate that aim may have been to detonate devices during flight
The Commercial Appeal
WASHINGTON — The mail-bomb plot stretching from Yemen to Chicago may have been aimed at blowing up planes in flight and was only narrowly averted, officials said Sunday, acknowledging that one device almost slipped through Britain and another seized in Dubai was unwittingly flown on two passenger jets.
Senior U.S. officials met to develop a U.S. response to the al-Qaida faction linked to the powerful explosives addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
Investigators were still piecing together the potency and construction of two bombs they believed were designed by the top explosives expert working for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based militant faction thought to be behind the plot.
But authorities admitted how close the terrorists came to getting their bombs through, and a senior U.S. official said investigators were still trying to figure out if other devices remained at large.
"We're trying to get a better handle on what else may be out there," deputy national security adviser John Brennan said Sunday. "We're trying to understand better what we may be facing."
He added that "it would be very imprudent ... to presume that there are no others (packages) out there."
Brennan said authorities are "looking at the potential that they would have been detonated en route to those synagogues aboard the aircraft as well as at the destinations. But at this point we, I think, would agree with the British that it looks as though they were designed to be detonated in flight."
British Prime Minister David Cameron had raised the possibility the bombs were aimed at blowing up the planes carrying them, but Brennan and other officials had previously concentrated more on the threat to the American synagogues.
One of the explosive devices found inside a shipped printer cartridge in Dubai had flown on two airlines before it was seized, first on a Qatar Airways Airbus A320 jet to Doha and then on an as-yet-undisclosed flight from Doha to Dubai.
The number of passengers on the flights were unknown, but the first flight had a 144-seat capacity and the second would have moved on one of a variety of planes with seating capacities ranging from 144 to 335.
Such a plot aimed at blowing up jets in flight is not new for al-Qaida. A mid-1990s scheme hatched by now-imprisoned terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed aimed to bring down a dozen jets simultaneously, but the plan was shelved in favor of the "flying bomb" approach used during the 9/11 attacks.
After masterminding the attempt last December to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner with explosives hidden in a passenger's underwear, the Yemen affiliate of al-Qaida appears to have nearly pulled off its own plot capitalizing on weak points in the world's aviation security and cargo systems.
How the Obama administration will react to the latest threat from Yemen remains unclear. A senior Pentagon official said Sunday that there have been no decisions on changing the current U.S. approach, which relies on U.S. special forces to train Yemeni security forces so they can better deal with the growing militant presence.
The U.S. has also carried out a series of secret strikes with the approval of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh against al-Qaida leaders in Yemen. Even so, the threat from the country has grown, making it second only to Pakistan as a hiding place for militants, the official said.
"We have watched al-Qaida move into Yemen for much of the last year, and the threat from (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) continues to grow," said the Pentagon official.
A Yemeni official said Sunday that his government is aiming for a "surgical" response with the help of the U.S. against the cell that carried out the plot.
Forensic analysis indicates the same bombmaker had a hand in the devices used in the failed bombing on a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas and the attack on Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief last year.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the suspected bombmaker is a 28-year-old Saudi named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is believed to be in Yemen. His own brother, Abdullah, died in the attack against the Saudi counterterrorism chief.
U.S. intelligence is also looking at U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the Christmas attack and has inspired other terrorists with his violent message. He's also believed to be hiding in Yemen.