Updated: 5:00 p.m. EDT, Oct. 30, 2010
Apparently acting on a tip from a Saudi Arabian source, the U.S. is searching for more suspicious packages after interdicting two cargo flights at East Midlands Airport in England and Dubai on Friday and finding shipments allegedly from Yemen that contained improvised bombs. The explosive devices were reported to have been wired into printer toner cartridges. Dubai Police said Saturday explosives in the printer's toner cartridge it had found were "professionally" loaded and connected via an electric circuit to a mobile phone chip hidden inside the printer. Because printer ink is flammable, there are restrictions on any package containing it, requiring special preparation for shipment. Explosive Ordinance Disposal specialists in Dubai said the package contained highly explosive PETN and lead azide substances, both used in bomb detonators. "The plot style carries features similar to previous attacks carried out by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda," according to a police statement. "A team from Dubai Police EOD unit disposed of the device."
In Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, where the packages allegedly originated (some reportedly addressed to synagogues in Chicago), the military presence grew visibly on Saturday in the section of town where UPS, FedEx and DHL have their offices. The companies are all on the same street in the rich suburb of Hadda, a main road that is a popular haunt for wealthy Yemenis who frequent its many western restaurants and stroll the area at night, smoking sheesha, a local fruit smoke, and drinking sweet tea with milk. Earlier Saturday morning, the offices which are small and staffed by just two or three people were still open for business. The staff at FedEx and UPS, however, had already been told not to speak to journalists. To get packages out of Sana'a and Yemen via international couriers, senders need to show an I.D. Card and provide their full name.
Later on Saturday, as many as 15 army soldiers were seen outside the FedEx office. The feeling is tense in elsewhere in Sana'a. Permanent checkpoints around the city have more soldiers working than usual and are asking people for ID cards and are looking into bags. The Ministry of the Interior sent out an SMS request: "The MOI calls upon all citizens to report on anybody walking in the city carrying arms. "
In the West, most suspicions are on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), believed to operate mainly out of Yemen and an independent franchise of the original organization of Osama bin Laden. Europe and the U.S. have been through a flurry of AQAP-related alerts recently. Two weeks ago, French officials said there had been a Saudi tip that France was being targeted out of Yemen. A French counter-terrorism official, however, could not say if that threat was related to the current printer-toner incidents. "I can't say no for certain since we don't know everything the Americans and British do in what is in any case an on-going investigation but I do know the Saudi alert was more general about intent and planning, not pointing to something as iminent as this would have been."The device intercepted in England could have downed the aircraft, Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May revealed. Speaking after a meeting of the U.K.'s emergency committee, Cobra, she said "The target may have been an aircraft and, had it detonated, the aircraft could have been brought down...We do not believe that the perpetrators of the attack would have known the location of the device when it was planned to explode." In a phone call after the Cobra meeting, the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama " agreed that their teams would remain in close contact in the hours and days ahead. The security and safety of the British and American people was the top priority," said a Downing Street spokesperson. Britain's security services, along with other western intelligence agencies, have been watching Yemen closely for years now because the impoverished country's civil wars have given al-Qaeda room to grow. Recent terrorist cases, including that of the underwear bomber last Christmas, were directly linked to Yemeni outfits. In his first ever public speech on Thursday, Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6, highlighted the threat from the country. "Precisely because we are having some success in closing down the space for terrorist recruitment and planning in the U.K., the extremists are increasingly preparing their attacks against British targets from abroad," he said. "It's not just the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa pose real threats to the UK.From his remote base in Yemen, Al-Qaeda leader and US national Anwar al-Awlaki broadcasts propaganda and terrorist instruction in fluent English over the internet."
However, security analysts in Yemen are skeptical of the media attention and the ability of AQAP to carry out an attack of this scale. One analyst told TIME that this is a new technique and strays from AQAP previous attacks in its scale and boldness. The situation is also confused because AQAP may be divided into three factions: a Yemeni branch, another that operates in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and a division made up of foreign fighters from abroad, including Europe and the U.S. as well as Pakistan and Somalia.
The Yemeni government was clearly embarrassed by the developments. Late Saturday, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told reporters that security forces had surrounded a house where a woman suspect was hiding. Local press reports eventually quoted unnamed officials saying a woman had been taken into custody. Observers remained skeptical, however, that a woman should be a suspect. The majority of women in Yemen wear full black niqab, revealing only their eyes, making it difficult for them to send overseas parcels because of the identification requirements. (Though terrorists in Yemen have dressed as women to carry out operations. In June, two male al-Qaeda militants dressed in niqab to conceal their identities during an attack on a security building in the port city of Aden.)
Meanwhile, people on the streets of Sana'a expressed anger that such negative attention should constantly be focused on Yemen. Students at a coffee shop said they thought AQAP was confined to the troubled southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa and, that if the international courier services were involved, they are worried that AQAP could now conduct global operations out of Sana'a. With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris and Catherine Mayer / London.