Cargo plane bomb found in Britain was primed to blow up over US

11.11.2010   (Guardian)
Device thought to have been sent by Yemen-based al-Qaida made safe three hours
from explosion

The shocking reality of the terrorist printer cartridge bomb plot emerged today
when Scotland Yard revealed that the device taken from a plane in Britain was
timed to explode in mid-air over the eastern
United States.

The bomb was found by police on board a cargo plane at East Midlands airport
last month after detailed information was passed through intelligence channels
to the UK and US from Saudi Arabia.

The Guardian understands that an alarm clock on a mobile phone attached to the
printer bomb was set to go off at 10.30am BST. Tests revealed that if the cargo
plane’s journey had gone to schedule, the device – in a package addressed to a
synagogue in Chicago – would have gone off in midair over the eastern seaboard
of the US.

The device found in the UK was one of two discovered after a Saudi tip-off. The
other was at Dubai airport. Both were capable of bringing down an aircraft.

The bombs are believed by western intelligence to have been sent by the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and sparked fears that a new vulnerability
in aviation security has been discovered by the terrorists.

Both bombs contained at least 300 grammes of the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate,
or PETN. The device found in Dubai had travelled on two passenger planes without
being detected.

The bomb found aboard a UPS plane at East Midlands was so sophisticated that
it was initially cleared by military and police explosives experts. When the plane
landed at 2.13am after arriving from Cologne, police were waiting for it. Saudi
intelligence told them which package to look for and it was taken off the plane.

At 4.20am the plane was allowed to continue on its journey as examination of
a large device containing a printer cartridge continued. It emerged yesterday
that the bomb was made safe inadvertently by bomb experts. At 7.40am they had
not determined that the package was a bomb and stopped it from exploding by removing
the “printer cartridge from the printer”, police said. The bomb was due to explode
just three hours later.

By mid-morning safety cordons at East Midlands were taken down, but when UK authorities
were alerted about the Dubai bomb, experts re-examined the East Midlands device.
A senior counter terrorism official told the Guardian the device was “one of the
most sophisticated we’ve seen. The naked eye won’t pick it up, experienced bomb
officers did not see it, x-ray screening is highly unlikely to catch it.”

According to well-placed sources, investigators believe the plotters intended
both bombs to detonate over America. That was the assumption from the moment intelligence
agencies in the US and the UK were tipped off by the Saudis. That view was strengthened
by the early discovery that both the bomb on the UPS plane and the one found on
a Fedex plane in Dubai earlier were wired to circuit boards from mobile phones
that did not contain Sim cards, which are needed to receive calls. This points
to phones being used as timers.

However, some counter-terrorist sources question that certainty. Given the vagaries
of cargo timetables they say it was impossible for the plotters to know where
the bombs would have detonated.

This explains remarks made by Theresa May, the home secretary, on 30 October,
the day after the bombs were found. She said, after a meeting of Cobra, the government’s
emergency planning committee: “We do not believe the perpetrators would have known
the location of the device when it was planned to explode.”

Officials have been trying to establish what the terrorist targets were. When
the bombs were set to go off is central to the investigation because it could
indicate whether the terrorists wanted to blow up the planes in US airspace or
take them down regardless of location.

In a statement Scotland Yard said: “Forensic examination has indicated that if
the device had activated it would have been at 10.30am BST on Friday, 29  October
2010. If the device had not been removed from the aircraft the activation could
have occurred over the eastern seaboard of the US. The device was disrupted at
East Midlands airport by explosive officers during the initial examination when
they removed the printer cartridge from the printer at approximately 7.40am on
Friday 29 October 2010.”

In the US the news was seen as further evidence that AQAP had moved to the top
of the country’s security concerns.

With confirmation that the plot was aimed at bringing down planes over American
territory, that stance appears to have been justified, officials said. White House
spokesman Nick Shapiro told CNN the findings by British police “underscore the
serious nature of the attempted AQAP attack and the challenge we all face in trying
to prevent or disrupt such attacks.”

But, Shapiro added, the fact that the plot had been detected was testimony to
the success of international intelligence agencies working together.

Continued co-operation over the situation in Yemen was needed, he added. “The
United States will continue to work closely with these partners and the government
of Yemen to address and counter the threat posed by AQAP as well as to provide
humanitarian and economic assistance to help shape a stable and secure Yemen.”