SANA, Yemen — Information that helped thwart the plot of U.S.-bound mail bombs wired to explode on cargo planes came from an al-Qaida insider who was secreted out of Yemen after surrendering to Saudi authorities, Yemeni security officials said Monday.
Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi militant who had joined al-Qaida in Yemen but handed himself over in late September, told Saudi officials about the plan, the Associated Press reported, citing officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Fayfi, a Saudi who was held for years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007. Soon after, he fled Saudi Arabia and joined the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, until he turned himself in to Saudi authorities in late September.
President Barack Obama thanked Saudi King Abdullah, a top U.S. ally, in a Saturday telephone call for the "critical role" by Saudi counterterrorism authorities in uncovering the plot. After the Saudi alert, two bombs hidden in packages mailed from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago were discovered Friday on planes transiting through Dubai and Britain.
Yemeni security officials told the Associated Press that they believe al-Fayfi may have been a double agent, planted by Saudi Arabia in Yemen among al-Qaida militants.
Saudi Arabia has been recruiting informants in the terrorist network and also has been paying Yemeni tribal chiefs — and even gives cash to figures in the Yemeni military — to gain their loyalty.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, considered a key figure in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is the chief suspect behind assembling the sophisticated mail bombs, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
German officials said Monday the mail bombs contained 10.58 ounces and 15.11 ounces of the explosive PETN — enough to cause significant damage to the planes. By contrast, the explosives that failed to work last Christmas on a Detroit-bound airliner used 80 grams of PETN secreted in the underwear of a Nigerian passenger. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that.
While al-Fayfi may have provided broad outlines about the plot, it appears Saudi Arabia had other sources.
U.S. officials have said the tip was specific enough that it identified the tracking numbers of the packages. The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan on Monday cited Saudi security officials as saying the kingdom gave U.S. investigators the tracking numbers, which al-Fayfi likely would not have known since he surrendered well before the packages were mailed.
Al-Fayfi's surrender may have revealed other plots as well. In mid October, a couple of weeks after his surrender, Saudi Arabia warned European authorities of a threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, saying the group's operatives were active on the continent, particularly in France.
Al-Fayfi, who is in his mid 30s and is known by the nom de guerre of Abu Jaafar al-Ansari, was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban there. According to documents from Guantanamo, he spent time at Osama bin Laden's hideaway at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in November and December 2001, during a U.S. air assault on the al-Qaida mountain stronghold.
Al-Fayfi was held at Guantanamo until early 2007, when he was released to Saudi Arabia.
There, he was put through the kingdom's rehabilitation program for militants. But soon after leaving the program, he fled to Yemen and joined al-Qaida, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry. In September, he contacted Saudi authorities, saying he wanted to turn himself in. A private jet was sent to the capital of Sana to bring him to Riyadh.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is made up of several hundred militants and appears to be aggressively seeking to recruit American and European radicals who could provide a way for the group to carry out attacks in their homelands. Yemen provides a potentially easy entry point for foreign radicals to link up with al-Qaida.
The militants include many Saudis who belonged to al-Qaida's branch in the kingdom until it was crushed by a heavy crackdown in the mid 2000s.
Since then, Saudi intelligence has aggressively been pursuing them. Frustration with Yemen climaxed last year when al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula came close to killing Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a member of the royal family who runs the Saudi counterterrorism program.
Al-Asiri's brother, Abdullah, posing as a reformed jihadist, detonated a bomb hidden inside a body cavity, killing himself but only slightly wounding the prince.
Forensic analysis indicates that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri built the bomb carried by his brother, as well as the explosives carried by the Nigerian on the Detroit-bound flight.