31 Oct 2010

Cargo plane bomb travelled on two passenger planes

A bomb travelled onboard two passenger jets before being seized in Dubai. Lord Carlile tells Channel 4 News the UK’s counter-terrorism review must focus on the dangers of radicalised individuals.

Two devices, hidden in printer cartridges and containing the powerful explosive pentaerythritol trinitrate (PETN), were found on cargo planes at East Midlands airport and in Dubai on Friday. Both packages were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

Qatar Airways confirmed today that the package intercepted in Dubai was carried on two passenger planes – an Airbus A320 from the Yemen capital Sana’a to Doha, and then another passenger plane from Doha to Dubai.

The devices were previously believed to have travelled on cargo planes.

A statement on Qatar Airways website said: “Qatar Airways can confirm that a recent courier consignment was carried aboard one of its aircraft from Sana’a to Dubai via Doha International Airport.

“The carrier stated that, as per Chicago Convention, it is not the responsibility of the country in which the cargo transits to x-ray or inspect the cargo. This responsibility belongs to the country from where the consignment originates.

“Furthermore, the explosives discovered were of a sophisticated nature whereby they could not be detected by x-ray screening or trained sniffer dogs. The explosives were only discovered after an intelligence tip off.”

The search continues for other suspects, and officials indicated that some are believed to have used forged documents and ID cards.

In Washington, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan publicly linked the bomb plot to Al Qaida’s Yemen branch, and warned that there could be more potential mail bombs like those discovered in planes in the UK and the United Arab Emirates.

US officials are also hunting the same bomb maker responsible for the failed Detroit bombing last Christmas, Saudi-born Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Saudi Arabia, which provided intelligence that helped identify the parcel bomb threat, put Asiri at the top of its terrorism list in 2009.

“The individual who has been making these bombs … is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience. And we need to find him. We need to bring him to justice as soon as we can,” Brennan told ABC News.

“I think the indications are right now based on the forensics analysis that it’s an individual who has been responsible for putting these devices together, the same.”

Authorities were also looking at two language institutions the plotters may have been associated with.

'Control orders will have to be continued'

Lord Carlile, the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorist legislation, told Channel 4 News the UK cannot rely on "good practices being followed elsewhere" on the security of parcels coming in and out of the country.

He said Yemen was "an increasing problem". "In the counter-terrorism review which will be published shortly I trust that the government will reflect the objective evidence which is available as to how one should deal with terrorism suspects who cannot be prosecuted," he said. "This may well mean that for a very limited number of people control orders will have to be continued subject, of course, to detailed scrutiny by the courts.

"(Islamic cleric hiding in Yemen, Anwar Al-Awlaki) is a warning to us all. Al-Awlaki apparently was born or at least brought up in the United States. He's an American Muslim, and there are many fine American Muslims. However, he has become radicalised, he's left the United States and has become the architect of some potentially extremely serious terrorism outrages.

"Exactly the same can happen in this country or in any other country in Europe. We have to be ever vigilant about that."

Dr John Gearson, who studies terrorist groups in the Arabian peninsula, said al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula " has great potential, but it hasn't yet demonstrated it's ability to do much more than be a very effective mouthpiece."

"I don't think it's a conspiracy theory to ask the question 'what does al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula gain from this sort of attack'," he said. "It is a regionally focused body that wants to bring down the Saudi and Yemeni government and take control in those areas.

"But it is staffed and led by people who are very close to Bin Laden. So, yes, in dragging attention to the Arabian Peninsula from Afghanistan and Pakistan you are also meeting the objectives of al-Qaeda centre."

Mr Cameron added last night that he had spoken to President Obama, adding: “I have also spoken to President (Ali Abdullah) Saleh of the Yemen making the point that we have to do even more to crack down and cut out the cancer of al Qaida in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.

“We have immediately banned packages coming to or through Britain from the Yemen and we will be looking extremely carefully at any further steps we have to take.”

Mr Cameron said the package started in Yemen, landed in Germany and was then transported to Britain en route to America, adding: “It just shows how united and determined we have to be to defeat terrorism.”

Al-Qaeda Coming Home to Yemen

It seems inevitable that the focus of western intelligence agencies will have to widen and shift from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border back to the Arabian Peninsula, where al-Qaeda began.

So how do we help make Yemen safer, beyond banning flights from its territory and strengthening cargo transport security around the world?

Those who know the country well insist that nothing less than a Marshall Plan of economic development, funded by the rich Gulf States and others, will put the country on its feet.

American boots on the ground is not an option. The occupation by "infidel" forces from the holy lands of Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula was given as the justification for September 11th, and more Americans would only boost al-Qaeda's cause.

The most likely short term scenario is an increase in unmanned drone attacks on suspected al-Qaeda targets. But bear this in mind – the strength of al-Qaeda in Yemen may be no more than 500 to 700 men. Get the strategy wrong, with inaccurate bombing raids and clumsy Yemeni-led offensives, and the al-Qaeda corps could double in numbers in a matter of months. In short, Britain's chief role in Yemen is to ensure that America does not make a bad situation worse.

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Student protests

This evening, Yemen authorities release 22-year-old student Hanan al-Samawi, who was detained along with her mother this morning on suspicion of mailing two bombs.

Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh told reporters that intelligence provided by the US and United Arab Emirates had helped identify the young woman. Officials said she had been traced through a telephone number she had left with a cargo company.

But other students at Sana’a University in Yemen have staged protests at the arrest of the student in connection with the plot. They also said the woman was in her final year of a computer science degree, rather than a medical degree as officials had stated.

“She was not known to be active in anything, not politics nor religion,” engineering student Yahya al-Hammadi told Reuters. “I am totally perplexed by this.”

Neighbours of the woman told Reuters she and her family were known in the neighbourhood as pious but not as holding extremist views.

“We were shocked because we knew of nothing suspicious about the girl or her family,” said Mohammed Saleh al-Ashwal, who witnessed the raid on the woman’s house on Saturday night.

Yemeni rights activist Abdel-Rahman Barman, from the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, said: “From the information we have, we think that Hanan is a victim of someone who used her mobile phone number for the parcels.”