Bombing 'test run' signals new strategy for al-Qaeda
Experts warn terrorists devising high-impact, low-investment attacks
THE first public signs emerged last week in a French television interview. France's interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, told a weekly talk show that Saudi Arabian intelligence was warning that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), which has its headquarters in Yemen, was planning a new wave of attacks, and urged Europe to be on its guard.
Mr Hortefeux said the warning had been received "in the last few days", prompting speculation that Aqap was flexing its muscles after the recent arrests of several high-profile terrorists.
It was not the first time Saudi intelligence had warned of a plot threatening Europe. The Saudi leadership insists it passed information to the UK relating to the London bombings of 2005, although MI5 maintains that what was predicted was "materially different from the attacks that took place on July 7".
But on Friday, the credibility of the latest warning appeared to be confirmed. It emerged that explosive devices were found in two packages bound for the US from Yemen -- one in the hold of a UPS cargo plane that had landed at East Midlands airport, England, the other on a FedEx plane in Dubai.
The discovery caused huge disruption and confusion, with the US scrambling fighters to accompany a passenger jet and mobilising explosive experts to search cargo planes. There was speculation that the parcels, which were addressed to two synagogues in Chicago, may have been a test of cargo-screening procedures. "This may be a trial run," one US official said.
British intelligence sources confirmed they were also exploring this angle -- and checking whether other flights may also have been used to carry suspect devices out of Yemen.
But as compelling evidence emerged that the devices were intended to go off on board the cargo planes, rather than at the synagogues to which they were addressed, experts warned they may represent the start of a trend for low-investment, high-impact attacks that are difficult for intelligence agencies to detect.
The explosives were built into printer cartridges, prompting concerns that terrorist groups are coming up with innovative new ways to launch attacks on foreign soil. Jane Harman, a Democrat on the House homeland security committee, who was briefed by the US Transportation Security Administration, said one device used a mobile phone as a detonator and the other had a timer.
Ben Venzke, chief executive of the intelligence agency IntelCenter, said that earlier in the year Aqap's official Arabic-language magazine, Sada al-Malahim, had issued instructions on how to build IEDs (improvised explosive devices). "The article provides insights into how the group approaches IED design and creates devices for specific targets and operations," he said. "The creation of devices built into toner cartridges fits within this philosophy and would not be surprising to see coming out of Aqap."
A White House counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged yesterday that al-Qaeda had attempted to adapt to US security measures in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, which have largely focused on commercial -- not cargo -- aircraft. "Clearly they are looking for vulnerabilities in our system," Mr Brennan said, adding that Aqap was "the most active operational franchise" of al-Qaeda outside its traditional Pakistan and Afghan bases.
According to US officials, initial tests have indicated the devices contained PETN, the same powerful explosive used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- a Nigerian who studied in the UK and was radicalised in Yemen -- in his failed attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit last Christmas.
Dubai police have also confirmed that there are "features similar to previous attacks carried out by terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda", adding that their tests showed the printer cartridge also contained an explosive compound used in detonators. There are only a handful of international shipping facilities in Yemen, all of which are heavily scrutinised, prompting questions about how the packages were loaded on to the planes without triggering a security alert.
Terror expert Dr Sally Leivesley said it appeared the powdered toner may have been used as a means of evading screening. "It's a step-jump change in terms of threat to aviation and it's extremely serious," she said. "These devices can be put on board anywhere."
Security at Yemen's Sana'a airport has been tightened significantly after US officials raised concerns that travellers and their luggage were not being carefully screened.
Yesterday, Yemeni officials insisted security at their airport is up to international standards and disputed claims the explosives originated in Yemen. However, Scotland Yard sources in London confirmed the package removed from the plane at East Midlands airport originated from Yemen.
In a public address, US President Barack Obama said: "Although we are still pursuing all the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen."