WASHINGTON — A person with suspected of ties to al Qaida's Yemen branch shipped several parcels in September in what may have been a test run of last week's mailing of air cargo bombs, a federal official said Monday.
Counterterrorism agents intercepted the September parcels, which contained harmless materials, said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The interdiction is one reason that Western intelligence agencies made "an incredibly fast mobilization" when they received a tip from Saudi Arabia's government last Thursday that two parcel bombs from Yemen were aboard cargo and passenger planes,
The official also said that the two bombs seized in the United Arab Emirates and Britain last week were constructed using cell phone alarm circuitry as timers, but didn't say when or whether they were set to explode.
The disclosures cast doubt on widespread reports that the Saudis learned of the attempted bombings from a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who hooked up with al Qaida, then defected and turned himself in to the Riyadh government in late September.
Despite the interception of the bombs, terrorism experts said, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula still scored a huge victory with the attempted attack.
Not only did the would-be attacks prompt President Barack Obama to interrupt midterm election campaigning to issue a comment, but they also drew a torrent of media attention that raised the profile of al Qaida's Yemen operations.
The incident also triggered calls for more costly security measures, filling al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden's stated objective of bankrupting the United States. Indeed, some experts assert that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. have resulted in Washington spending trillions of dollars to strengthen anti-terrorism measures and to pursue wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's one and the same," said another U.S. government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. "You get a victory even if nothing horrendous happens."
Details surrounding the attempted bombings were still elusive. Absent the Saudi tip, it's unclear whether airport authorities in Dubai and Britain would have screened the packages addressed to two Jewish centers in Chicago before they were put aboard planes. It's also unclear whether, even if the parcels were screened, the current technology would have identified the explosive chemical PETN packaged inside printer cartridges.
However, the outlines of the counterterrorism coup were beginning to become clearer.
The U.S. government official knowledgeable about the September incident said authorities interdicted a few suspicious packages from Yemen "because they were associated with a person who was thought to be part of AQAP." The official did not know whether the sender is a suspect in the more recent bomb shipments.
The September parcels contained "nothing suspicious or terrorism-related," and one or more were books, the official said.
"It could have been a test of the system, and that was something that everyone looked at," the official said, declining to identify the addressees.
"That's why, when the tip came in Thursday night (from the Saudi government), it was an incredibly fast mobilization."
John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, told CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that "it looks as though they were designed to be detonated in flight," but on other Sunday talk shows, he said it was unclear whether they were designed to explode in flight or at their Chicago destinations.
Bruce Hoffman, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, noted that the bombs "were more sophisticated than others we've seen in awhile" and said they suggest that al Qaida is probing the defenses of Western governments.
Counterterrorism agencies suspect that the bomb maker was Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri, a Saudi national linked to al Qaida and sought for international terrorism. He "seems to have a track record of innovative bomb making," Hoffman said.
However, he noted that last week's mail bombers didn't invent the wheel. The deadly 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Scotland, was executed with a device hidden in a Toshiba tape recorder.
The attacks prompted Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a Democrat who wrote the 2007 law requiring screening of 100 percent of the cargo on domestic and U.S.-bound passenger flights, to announce plans to introduce legislation to require screening of all freight aboard cargo planes.
For years, Markey has fought for universal cargo screening to implement a recommendation of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. Industry officials have resisted, saying that costly, time-consuming screening isn't necessary for known customers.
Jack Tomarcio, who served as deputy undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis during the Bush administration, said the attempted attacks seem to "militate for some type of solution that gives us pretty much 100 percent accountability on air freight."
However, some experts said that's what al Qaida is seeking.
One of al Qaida's goals has been to "compel the United States and the West . . . to focus a substantial part of their resources on them," said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "And that alone is a triumph, particularly at a time when the world economy fell into a very serious recession."
White, now affiliated with the Middle East Institute, blamed U.S. political leaders for "defining the standard of safety as perfection, because . . . the closer you get to trying to achieve it, the more you're wasting assets."
More people die on the highways in a day and in industrial accidents in a month "than al Qaida is ever going to get in a terrorist spectacular," he said.
Hoffman said that al Qaida "has made no secret in recent years that they're waging a form of economic warfare."
He called AQAP, its newest front, "among the most skilled propagandists in the terrorism world" and said that "they already got the attention of the president days before a crucial mid-term election.
"It doesn't get much better than that," he said.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
Follow national security news at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks
McClatchy Newspapers 2010