By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 9:56 AM
The two package bombs intercepted by authorities in Britain and Dubai last week appear to have been built to detonate "in flight" and to bring down the planes carrying them, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser said.
"At this point we, I think, would agree with the British that it looks as though they were designed to be detonated in flight," said the adviser, John Brennan, speaking Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
The assessment, combined with the revelation that one of the packages traveled on passenger flights in the Middle East, underlined just how narrowly authorities had averted a potential catastrophe. It also raised puzzling questions about why the packages, which contained bombs skillfully packed inside modified printer cartridges, were addressed to two synagogues in Chicago, a potential warning flag given that the packages originated in Yemen.
Germany on Monday said it would halt passenger flights from German airports to Yemen because of the terrorist threat, wire services reported. Germany suspended package deliveries from Yemen over the weekend. The bomb intercepted in London had been mailed from Yemen and routed through the UPS hub in Cologne, the Associated Press said.
On other Sunday morning talk shows, Brennan was more circumspect about the ultimate targets of the attack. He said on the ABC program "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" that authorities have "to look very carefully at whether or not they were going to be detonated on the aircraft or they were intended for the destination, and that's where they were going to be detonated."
British officials have been more categorical. Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday that "we believe the device was designed to go off on the aeroplane."
A U.S. counterterrorism official said that forensics work is still in its early stages on the packages and that FBI experts are involved. The preliminary conclusion that the devices were designed to detonate aboard aircraft, and not at the addresses in the Chicago area, is based in part on the fact that the parcels were not rigged to explode upon opening.
The devices employed cellphone technology, but it remains unclear why they were built that way. Among the questions authorities are asking: How and when, during a transatlantic passage, would the cellphone components have been in range to receive a signal?
"There are a whole lot of theories being kicked around about whether [they were set] on a timer, whether somebody was going to call, or another triggering mechanism would set them off," the counterterrorism official said.
With early evidence suggesting that the plot was directed by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, Brennan said U.S. officials cannot presume that there are no more package bombs circulating, even though some U.S. law enforcement officials think they have identified and cleared all packages that left Yemen at the same time as the two devices already intercepted.
In Yemen, police on Sunday released a woman they had arrested the previous day on suspicion of mailing the two bombs. Officials there said someone might have assumed the identity of the woman, 22, a computer engineering student at Sanaa University.
A shipping agent could not identify the woman, and Yemeni officials said that although there are no suspects in custody, they are pursuing a number of leads.
A spokesman for Qatar Airways said Sunday that the package discovered at a FedEx facility in Dubai had traveled on two of its passenger flights before reaching the United Arab Emirates. The package was first routed to Doha, the capital of Qatar, on a flight from Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, then was shipped on another passenger flight to Dubai.
The disclosure intensified questions about the security of cargo and whether it has become a vulnerability in the aviation system.
The United States requires the scanning of air cargo on domestic passenger flights and on passenger flights entering the United States. But it is not a universal practice, and the plot will probably lead to calls for the increased use of sophisticated imaging technology, at least on cargo coming from certain countries.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who wrote the 2007 law dealing with cargo on passenger planes, said in a statement Sunday that he plans to introduce legislation that would mandate the screening of everything sent on cargo planes.
The two package bombs, however, appear to have been built to beat existing security systems, as were other recent bombs believed to have been deployed by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Qatar Airways said the device found in Dubai would not have been detected by X-ray or bomb-sniffing dogs. British officials missed the second device during a first sweep for it among cargo at a UPS hub near Nottingham, England.
Brennan said the devices were "very sophisticated" in how they were constructed and concealed.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is also suspected in the attempted bombing of a commercial airliner approaching Detroit last Christmas and in a failed assassination attempt several months earlier against a leading Saudi counterterrorism official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
Both bombs contained PETN, the explosive found in the mail packages. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who officials say trained in Yemen and sought to carry out the Christmas Day attack, passed though airport security, including in Amsterdam. The plot was foiled, officials say, only when passengers stopped him from detonating the explosives hidden in his underwear.
The suicide bomber who killed himself in trying to assassinate Nayef also passed through a scanner before being brought into a room to meet the prince.
"The individual who has been making these bombs . . . is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience," said Brennan, speaking on ABC.
Brennan did not name the suspect, but other U.S. officials identified him as Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, 28, a Saudi national who is on that country's most-wanted list. His younger brother, Abdullah, had blown himself up in the attempt to assassinate Nayef.
Asiri is one of a number of Saudis with prominent roles in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Another is the American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi.
The group has now twice tried to use the aviation system to launch terrorist attacks in the past 12 months, and has become the focus of U.S. intelligence and military operations, including strikes at its hideouts in Yemen and stepped-up military aid to the Yemeni government.
U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials said the latest attack has added new urgency to ongoing discussions within the Obama administration about whether to expand the U.S. arsenal, perhaps with CIA drones, in the fight in Yemen.
Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.