London. One of two powerful bombs mailed from Yemen to Chicago-area synagogues traveled on two passenger planes within the Middle East, a Qatar Airways spokesman said on Sunday. The United States said the plot bears the hallmarks of Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen and vowed to destroy the group.
The airline spokesman said a package containing explosives hidden in a printer cartridge arrived in Qatar Airways’ hub in Doha, on one of its flights from the Yemeni capital Sanaa. It was then shipped on a separate Qatar Airways plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it was discovered by authorities. A second, similar package turned up in England on Friday.
The plot was the latest to expose persistent security gaps in international air travel and cargo shipping nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and showed terrorists appear to be probing those vulnerabilities.
In Washington, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser John Brennan said authorities “have to presume” there might be more potential mail bombs like the ones pulled from planes in England and the United Arab Emirates.
US inspectors were heading to Yemen to monitor cargo security practices and pinpoint holes in the system. An internal government report said the team of six inspectors from the Transportation Security Administration will give Yemeni officials recommendations and training to improve cargo security. The report also says the agency is considering extending its security directive to increase inspection of cargo for all flights through Nov. 8.
“We’re trying to get a better handle on what else may be out there,’’ Brennan said on Sunday. “We’re trying to understand better what we may be facing.” He added it “would be very imprudent to presume that there are no other packages out there.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he believed the explosive device found in central England was intended to detonate on the plane, while British Home Secretary Theresa May said the bomb was powerful enough to take down the aircraft. A US official said the second device found in Dubai was thought to be similar in strength.
A US official and a British security consultant said on Sunday that the bomb that turned up in England nearly slipped past investigators even after they were tipped off. The near-miss shows it was sophisticated enough to escape notice.
Brennan said the bombs were “very sophisticated.”
In Yemen on Sunday, police were searching for additional suspects after arresting a female computer engineering student suspected of mailing the packages and also detaining her mother.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that the United States and United Arab Emirates had provided intelligence that helped identify the woman suspected of mailing the packages.
The 22-year-old Hanan al-Samawi is a student at the University of Sanaa, said Yemeni rights activist Abdel-Rahman Barman.
According to her university colleagues, al-Samawi is not known to be involved in any political activity or to have ties to any Islamic groups, Barman said. He said she had not been allowed access to a lawyer.
Yemeni officials pointed to additional suspects believed to have used forged documents and ID cards. One member of Yemen’s anti-terrorism unit said the other suspects were tied to Al Qaeda.
Experts caution that cargo, even when loaded onto passenger planes, is lightly inspected or even completely unexamined, particularly when it comes from countries without well-developed aviation security systems.
Most countries require parcels placed on passenger flights by international shipping companies to go through at least one security check. Methods include hand checks, sniffer dogs, X-ray machines and high-tech devices that can find traces of explosives on paper or cloth swabs.
But air shipping is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger jets, experts said.