US intercepted test parcels from Yemen in September
The United States intercepted parcels from Yemen in September thought to be a dry run for the package bomb plot, a US official said on Monday, as Western governments tightened freight security.
Two parcels addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago and containing the lethal explosive PETN hidden in ink toner cartridges were uncovered on Thursday on cargo planes en route to the United States in Britain and Dubai.
But now it has emerged that the United States first uncovered suspicious packages from Yemen back in September and linked them "several weeks ago" to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a US official.
"The boxes were stopped in transit and searched," the official told AFP confirming that the packages contained no explosives.
"At the time, people obviously took notice and -- knowing of the terrorist group's interest in aviation -- considered the possibility that AQAP might be exploring the logistics of the cargo system," the official added.
"When we learned of last week's serious threat, people recalled the incident and factored it in to our government's very prompt response."
ABC News, which broke the news of the dry run, said it had been told by senior officials that ever since the September discovery US intelligence agencies had specific concerns about AQAP's interest in Chicago.
The dry run contained household goods including books, religious literature, and a computer disk and were shipped by "someone with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," a US official told ABC.
Meanwhile, Western governments imposed new restrictions on freight in the wake of the plot, as Yemen scrambled to contain the fallout by announcing exceptional security measures on all freight leaving Yemeni airports.
A team of US experts is heading to Yemen to provide screening, training and equipment to examine cargo shipments at the main international airport in the capital Sanaa.
Qatar Airways has revealed that one of the packages had been flown from Sanaa to Doha and then on to Dubai on one of its passenger aircraft, raising even more concern in Western capitals.
Britain announced Monday that it was suspending all unaccompanied air cargo from war-torn Somalia, extending an earlier ban on freight from Yemen.
Germany said it was banning all flights from Yemen, after the discovery of the bomb at East Midlands airport in Britain, which passed through the German city of Cologne.
British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to work with partners in the Middle East to "cut out the terrorist cancer that lurks in the Arabian Peninsula.
"The fact that the device was being carried from Yemen to the UAE to Germany to Britain en route to America shows the interest of the whole world in coming together to deal with this," Cameron told parliament.
The Dubai bomb was composed of a highly explosive combination of PETN and lead azide, hidden inside a computer printer with a circuit board and mobile phone SIM card attached, security officials said.
British Home Secretary Theresa May announced a ban on passengers carrying toner cartridges larger than 500 grams in their hand luggage.
The BBC reported that the bombs had been discovered following a tip-off from a former Al-Qaeda militant who handed himself in to Yemeni authorities two weeks ago.
Jabr al-Faifi is a former Guantanamo detainee who was returned to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation in 2006 but later escaped to Yemen and rejoined Al-Qaeda.
An alleged Saudi bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, has emerged as a key suspect in the bomb plot.
"Al-Asiri's past activities and explosives' experience make him a leading suspect," a US counter-terrorism official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The militant, thought to be hiding in Yemen, was already wanted for designing the "underwear" bomb worn by the young Nigerian accused of trying to bring down a packed airliner as it landed in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Months earlier, Asiri sent his 23-year-old younger brother on a suicide mission, with 100 grams of PETN under his white Saudi robe, to kill Saudi intelligence chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was wounded but survived.
© 2010 AFP