WASHINGTON — The mail bomb plot stretching from Yemen to Chicago may have been aimed at blowing up planes in midflight and was only narrowly averted, officials said Sunday, acknowledging that one device almost slipped through Britain and that another seized in Dubai had been transported on two passenger jets.
U.S. and British investigators were expected to arrive in Yemen's capital, Sana, early this week to assist Yemeni authorities in investigating the attempted bombings, which were disrupted last week after authorities in Britain and the United Arab Emirates, acting on tips from Saudi and U.S. intelligence, intercepted the packages.
On Sunday, authorities in Yemen released Hanan Samawi, 23, an engineering student who had been arrested a day earlier after her name was discovered on one or both of the packages sent from Sana. The Associated Press said it was told by a Yemeni official that investigators now believe she was a victim of identity theft.
Though initial reports indicated the packages were shipped aboard cargo jets, Qatar Airways said in a statement Sunday that the package intercepted in the United Arab Emirates was initially transported aboard a passenger jet that went from Sana to Doha, the Qatari capital, and then on another that flew to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
John Brennan, the White House's senior counterterrorism adviser, said the packages were addressed to fictitious people in Chicago "associated with synagogues." But he indicated that investigators were more confident after investigating the devices over the weekend that the bombs were designed to go off before being delivered.
Brennan told CBS's Face the Nation that authorities are "looking at the potential that they would have been detonated en route to those synagogues aboard the aircraft, as well as at the destinations. But at this point we, I think, would agree with the British that it looks as though they were designed to be detonated in flight."
British Prime Minister David Cameron had raised the possibility that the bombs were aimed at blowing up the planes carrying them, but Brennan and other officials had previously concentrated more on the threat to the American synagogues to which the bombs were addressed.
"We're trying to get a better handle on what else may be out there," Brennan told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. He told CNN's State of the Union that "it would be very imprudent … to presume that there are no others (packages) out there."
The United States has halted all cargo and mail shipments from Yemen, and security officials in several countries were searching shipments Sunday for other bombs, officials said. Brennan said all packages coming from Yemen would be checked.
Forensic analyses of the two bombs indicated they were constructed by Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, a member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who is also believed to have built the devices used in two previous attempted attacks, including a failed effort to blow up a U.S. airliner last December, Brennan said.
Such a plot aimed at blowing up jets in midflight is not new for al-Qaida. A mid-1990s scheme hatched by now-imprisoned terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed aimed to bring down a dozen jets simultaneously, but the plan was shelved in favor of the "flying bomb" approach used during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
New details also emerged Sunday about the events leading up to the near-disaster. U.S. officials said a call from Saudi intelligence with information about packages containing explosives led to frantic searches in Dubai and England.
"It was a race against the clock to find those packages, to neutralize them," Brennan told CNN.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Sunday that German police were tipped off to the suspicious package on board the cargo plane Friday. The package was flown from Yemen to Cologne-Bonn airport, where UPS has its hub. From there, it was transferred to a plane bound for Britain's East Midlands Airport.
De Maiziere said that by the time German officials received the information, the package was already en route to Britain. The Germans then alerted their British colleagues, who had also been contacted by the Saudis.
The cargo plane landed in the dead of night at East Midlands Airport in central England. It was to continue to Philadelphia and Chicago.
The flight landed shortly after 3 a.m., and British officials removed cargo from the plane for an extensive search. The search came up empty. Even a computer printer cartridge later found to contain plastic explosives was cleared.
Then officials in Dubai told their British counterparts that a suspicious computer printer cartridge had been found to contain PETN explosive.
The Dubai officials told British police precisely how to pinpoint the explosive. The search teams went back in, and this time they found the deadly explosive.
The other bomb traveled on two commercial passenger planes before it was located in Dubai. The package arrived at Qatar Airways' hub in Doha on one of the carrier's flights from Sana. It was then shipped on a different Qatar Airways plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it was discovered early Friday.
Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.