San'a, 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.
The tip reflects how Saudi Arabia has worked aggressively for years to infiltrate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is operating in the unruly, impoverished nation on its southern doorstep.
The tip came from Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi who was held for years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and 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.
Yemeni security officials said they believe al-Fayfi may have been a double agent, planted by Saudi Arabia in Yemen among al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militants to uncover their plots. The officials said that after his return to the kingdom, he told authorities that al-Qaida was planning to send bomb-laden packages.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Tribal leaders in Yemen aware of the situation, and similarly speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed al-Fayfi’s role. Saudi officials did not respond to calls for comment.
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.
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.
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 300 grams and 400 grams 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.
The warning from Germany came as investigators tried to trace bomb parts and look for any more explosives possibly sent from Yemen.
The Yemeni National civil aviation committee decided late Sunday to tighten security in Yemeni airports, according to the state Saba news agency. The committee, headed by the minister of transport, said cargo leaving the airports will be thoroughly inspected and shipping agents will have to get licenses in line with international standards. The committee also approved a new airport security force.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi expert on al-Qaida, said the Saudis “managed to do a superb job in Yemen. ... You have to have someone inside in order to get the job done.”