Yemen arrests bomb plot suspect, but clues lead to AQAP bombmaker

Yemen officials arrested a suspect Saturday in the alleged plot to mail bombs to two synagogues in Chicago, but clues also lead to a bombmaker for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), reports say.

Saudi Arabia Ministry of Interior/AP
This undated photo released by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Interior on Sunday, is said by them to show Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri who, according to US officials, is the suspected AQAP bombmaker behind the explosive for a failed bombing attack on a U.S. Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, and prime suspect in the latest Yemen mail bomb plot.

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Yemeni authorities Saturday arrested a student suspected of mailing the bombs addressed to two synagogues in Chicago and intercepted Friday in Dubai and Britain.

But the suspect is likely a minor player in the plot and US officials and investigators say they suspect the top leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to be behind the attack. They also say a Yemeni Al Qaeda bombmaker implicated in previous attacks, including the one on Christmas Day last year, is likely behind the explosive devices. The bombs were discovered Friday after Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief warned US officials about the plot.

Reuters reports that the suspect, a female medical student at Sanaa University, was found through the telephone number she apparently gave when she mailed the packages. Her mother was also detained.

STORY: Yemen packages: Is Al Qaeda focusing on small-scale attacks?

The woman’s lawyer told Reuters that she was a quiet student whose acquaintances said she was not involved in any “religious or political” groups. "I'm concerned the girl is a victim, because it doesn't make sense that the person who would do this kind of operation would leave a picture of their ID and their phone number,” he said.

Clues point to AQAP bombmaker

The Washington Post reports that the investigators examining the devices say the clues point to Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a bombmaker for AQAP.

Asiri is suspected in two previous attempted terrorist attacks: one attempted by the “underwear bomber,” a Nigerian man allegedly trained in Yemen who attempted to detonate explosives on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day last year, and the other an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief with a suicide bomber (who was Asiri’s brother).

One of the clues is the explosive substance used in the bombs, which hid the explosive in printer cartridges.

US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saturday they appeared to use pentaerythritol trinitrate, or PETN. That was the material used in both the “underwear bomber” and the suicide attack on the Saudi official.

Sophisticated explosives work

The New York Times reports that an investigator said the wiring of the devices appeared to have been done by professionals, with the devices designed so that the printers would appear normal if the packages were scanned. The Times reports that the devices were “expertly constructed and unusually sophisticated,” pointing to the Yemeni Al Qaeda group’s growing abilities.

CNN reports that the devices discovered Friday were “four times as powerful” as the Christmas Day bomb last year. A US official told CNN that officials suspect the same bombmaker made both devices because of “the way it’s put together.”

It is not clear whether the devices were intended to target the synagogues in Chicago to which they were addressed, or were intended to bring down the airplanes transporting the packages. The Daily Telegraph reports that British Prime Minister David Cameron said the device discovered at East Midlands Airport near London was designed to detonate while aboard the airplane. The British homeland secretary said that such an explosion could have brought down a plane.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the plot may be part of a new focus by Al Qaeda on smaller-scale attacks on the US and the West. The group may be moving away from larger-scale attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001 attack in favor of more focused actions that can still cause substantial harm.

STORY: Yemen packages: Is Al Qaeda focusing on small-scale attacks?

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