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Cargo plane bombs more lethal than Christmas Day attempt; Yemen charges Aulaqi in absentia

Two packages found aboard aircrafts en route to the United States contained explosive material and represented a "credible terrorist threat," President Obama said.

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By Peter Finn and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 5:36 AM

The two package bombs discovered on cargo flights last week contained far more explosive material than the device that the alleged would-be underwear bomber planned to use last Christmas to down a Detroit-bound jetliner, according to German security officials.

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The officials said the bombs were so expertly built that the wiring was difficult to detect even when seen in an X-ray image.

The German officials, who briefed reporters in Berlin, said the bomb found on a UPS plane in England, which also passed through the Cologne-Bonn airport, contained 15.11 ounces, or 400 grams, of the explosive PETN. The second device, found at a FedEx facility in Dubai, contained 10.58 ounces of the material, a powerful plastic explosive.

The PETN-based bomb found on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting to bring down a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, weighed 2.82 ounces.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials disclosed Monday that authorities had tracked earlier suspicious packages from al-Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate in September, attempts now seen as potential test runs for the foiled bombing attempt a month later.

A U.S. official said that three September shipments were also sent to an address or addresses in Chicago and contained books and religious literature, but no explosives. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said that the packages were intercepted because of intelligence indicating that they had been sent by a person affiliated with AQAP.

One or more of the packages was allowed to continue to Chicago, but the U.S. official said that the concerns raised by that episode - first reported by ABC News - help to explain why the U.S. reaction was so swift to the Saudi intelligence tip last week.

The shipments of earlier packages might have enabled AQAP to monitor their delivery using tracking services commonly available on shippers' Web sites, information that might have been used in connections with timers or other devices to maximize the damage caused by bombs.

Both of the bombs discovered last week were encased in ink cartridges. One German official described the design as "highly professional," saying that some of the wires were so well disguised they they looked like cables for a printer. Other wires were so thin they couldn't be seen on an X-ray, the official said, echoing other analyses in recent days that the bombs could beat X-ray machines and bomb-sniffing dogs.

The bombs are believed to be the handiwork of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi national active in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the Christmas Day plot, among other conspiracies.

Explosive experts say that the amount of PETN in the ink cartridges could have brought the planes down.

Jimmie Oxley, co-director of the Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response at the University of Rhode Island, said that if the packages ended up on a pallet surrounded by other cargo, the planes could have survived an explosion, but that if they had been placed near the skin of the planes, detonations could have destroyed the aircraft in mid-air.


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