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Package bomb could have downed plane over Canada, data show

By Peter Finn and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 7:27 PM

One of the two package bombs intercepted late last month would have exploded over a largely unpopulated area of Canada if it had detonated, according to flight data and new information released Wednesday by the British police.

"Forensic examination has indicated that if the device had activated it would have been at 10:30hrs BST [5:30 a.m. EDT] on Friday, 29 October 2010," the London Metropolitan Police, which leads terrorism investigations in Britain, said in a statement.

The British police, who discovered the parcel on a UPS cargo plane that arrived in England, said the bomb would have detonated over the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. But that conclusion might have been based on the assumption that the plane would have taken a slightly more direct route than the one flown Oct. 29.

The same UPS flight can take different routes on different days, sometimes shortening the time needed to reach the United States. At 5:30 a.m. Oct. 29, the flight carrying the bomb was about 160 miles northwest of Quebec City, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based group that provides flight tracking data.

A U.S. official said the United States was probably the intended target of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group suspected to be behind the plot.

Although an explosion over Canada would have killed the crew, it would have fallen far short of the catastrophe that could have ensued had the plane gone down over a major U.S. city such as Philadelphia, the destination of the UPS flight.

"The assumption is they were trying to explode the plane over the U.S., but when you send something by cargo, you don't control all the variables," the official said.

Despite the search for the bomb in England, the plane took off close to on time from the East Midlands Airport near Nottingham at 4:20 a.m. local time. It didn't enter U.S. airspace over western New York until 6 a.m.

A spokesman for UPS declined to discuss the plane's route.

"UPS does not detail our particular flight segments, nor will we discuss specifics of the investigation into the recent suspicious package incident," said Mike Mangeot, a spokesman for UPS.

U.S. and British officials had earlier concluded that the device was designed to explode in flight, but the latest information provides greater detail about the terrorist plot. It also suggests that the bomb-makers probably used information available on the Internet to attempt to calculate when the bomb would arrive over the United States.

U.S. officials said al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula might have attempted a dry run in September, shipping several packages from Yemen to Chicago. The group would have been able to follow the hourly trajectory of the packages on the Web sites of international shippers.

"We greatly appreciate the highly professional nature of the U.K. investigation and the spirit of partnership with which U.K. authorities have pursued this matter," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement Wednesday.

The bomb discovered in England, made with 15 ounces of the explosive PETN, originated in Yemen and was hidden in an ink cartridge addressed to a synagogue in the Chicago area.

U.S. and European officials were alerted to the plot by a tip from Saudi intelligence, which led to frantic attempts to intercept the bomb as it was flown from the Middle East to Germany and then the East Midlands Airport, a company hub. British explosives experts defused the bomb at 7.40 a.m. local time.

The parcel was one of two package bombs destined for the United States. A second device, found at a FedEx facility in Dubai, contained 10.58 ounces of PETN and was also hidden inside an ink cartridge for a printer. Officials said the bombs were so expertly built that the wiring was difficult to detect even when seen in an X-ray image. On a first sweep through the UPS plane, British officials missed the device.

The PETN-based bomb found on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, weighed only 2.82 ounces. Officials said they have little doubt that the package bombs discovered last month contained enough explosive material to bring down the cargo planes.

finnp@washpost.com tatej@washpost.com

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