Despite dry run, timing midair explosion not easy
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:09 AM
WASHINGTON -- Even after a suspected test run in September, last week's attempted mail bombings from Yemen were a shot in the dark for al-Qaida, which could not have known exactly where its packages were when they were set to explode, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
When investigators pulled the Chicago-bound packages off cargo planes in England and the United Arab Emirates Friday, they found the bombs wired to cell phones. The communication cards had been removed and the phones could not receive calls, officials said, making it likely the terrorists intended the alarm or timer functions to detonate the bombs.
"The cell phone probably would have been triggered by the alarm functions and it would have exploded mid-air," said a U.S. official briefed on the investigation, who like other officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
The official also said Tuesday that each bomb was attached to a syringe containing lead azide, a chemical initiator that would have detonated PETN explosives packed into each printer cartridge. Both PETN and a syringe were used in the failed bombing last Christmas of a Detroit-bound airliner.
Officials on three continents thwarted last week's mail bomb plot, the culmination of more than a month of intelligence-gathering, officials said. The Obama administration, which has been monitoring intelligence on possible mail plots since at least early September, was preparing new security rules for international cargo in response to the attempted attack.
In response, the Obama administration intends to tighten security on U.S-bound cargo. Security officials are considering requiring that companies provide information about incoming cargo before planes take off, one U.S. official said. Currently, the U.S. doesn't get that information until four hours before a plane lands.
A second official said the U.S. will also expand its definition of high-risk cargo, meaning more cargo will be screened from countries known as hotbeds of terrorism.
President Barack Obama stressed the need for stronger security for air cargo in a telephone conversation Tuesday with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, the White House said.
Investigators believe al-Qaida mailed three innocent-looking packages from Yemen to Chicago in mid-September to watch the route they took.
One of those packages contained a copy of British author George Eliot's 1860 novel "The Mill on the Floss." Authorities were investigating whether it was a subtle calling card from Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric who has inspired a string of attempted attacks against the West.
The militant cleric is now a fugitive, targeted by a U.S. kill or capture list. Yemeni authorities put him on trial in absentia Tuesday, charging him as a new defendant in the October killing of a French security guard.
Al-Awlaki became well versed in English literature while in prison in Yemen from 2006 to 2007 and later posted online book reviews slamming Shakespeare and praising Charles Dickens. Beyond that, however, there was no immediate connection between al-Awlaki and the book found in the package mailed in September, one U.S. official said.