Latest update: 02/11/2010
- al Qaeda - Saudi Arabia - USA - Yemen
Troops launch hunt for Saudi bombmaker, US-born cleric
Yemen launched military operations Tuesday to apprehend Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi bombmaker suspected of being behind a bomb plot involving parcels on international flights, and US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is wanted by Washington.
By NEWS WIRES (text)
REUTERS - Yemen launched a major operation on Tuesday to arrest a Saudi bombmaker suspected of being behind a foiled bomb plot involving U.S.-bound parcels as the poverty-hit Muslim nation comes under pressure to find those responsible.
The aim of the operation in the provinces of Maarib and Shabwa was to capture Ibrahim al-Asiri, as well as the U.S.-born radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who is wanted by Washington for his links to al Qaeda, a Yemeni security official said.
Yemeni authorities also began the trial in absentia of al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound plane in December 2009 that was claimed by Yemen's al Qaeda wing and who is thought to be in southern Yemen.
"Asiri is believed to be hiding and moving with senior al Qaeda elements such as (Yemen al Qaeda leader) Nasser al-Wahayshi. Security intelligence are still tracking them down to exactly identify their whereabouts," the official said.
"The campaign includes intensive intelligence and military work," he added. Security forces had been deployed to parts of the two provinces, and were working to seal off some areas.
Maarib and Shabwa are neighbouring provinces that are known for their impenetrable desert landscape. Shabwa is in central Yemen and borders the Arabian Sea, while Maarib lies to the west of the country.
The two parcel bombs were intercepted last week on cargo planes in Britain and Dubai and are thought to be the work of al Qaeda's Yemen-based arm, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. officials say.
The U.S. Treasury has blacklisted Awlaki as a "specially designated global terrorist". Earlier this year, the United States authorised the CIA to capture or kill him.
Last week's plot deepened Western security fears focused on Yemen after AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb that Saudi Arabia's security chief narrowly survived in August 2009 and a foiled Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound plane.
U.S. President Barack Obama has increased funding for Yemen this year, providing $150 million in military assistance alone.
Unmanned American drone aircraft gather information about militants and have occasionally fired missiles at them, although neither Washington nor Sanaa is keen to admit this.
Joint U.S.-Yemeni security operations in the past year have failed to kill or capture AQAP's top leadership.
The muscular approach risks provoking a fierce backlash among Yemenis already deeply hostile to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington's support for Israel.
Possible ‘dry run’
Asked to comment on media reports that Jaber al-Fifi, a Saudi al Qaeda militant who had given himself up to the Saudi authorities last month, had tipped Riyadh off on the plot, the Yemeni security official said:
"All what we know is that he was arrested in Abyan weeks ago and was handed over to the Saudis recently within the framework of our cooperation with them."
In a fresh development over the interception of the bombs, U.S. media said that American intelligence officials tracked several shipments of household goods from Yemen to Chicago in September and considered that the parcels might be a dry run for a militant attack.
Intelligence officials believe the tracking of the shipments may have been used to plan the route and timing for two parcel bombs discovered on U.S.-bound planes in Dubai and London.
"That was one scenario that was considered," an official told The New York Times.
The "dry run" involved a carton of household goods including books, religious literature, and a computer disk, but no explosives, shipped from Yemen to Chicago, the report said.
ABC reported that officials believe the earlier flight might have been used to track how long it took and whether there would be any problems for the packages getting through the system.
Governments have tightened aviation security after the devices sent in air cargo from Yemen were intercepted.
The bombs were hidden in printer toner cartridges and would have been powerful enough to destroy the planes carrying them, Britain said.
The New York Times said the apparent test run may have allowed plotters to estimate when planes carrying the explosive toner cartridges would be over Chicago or another city.
That would permit them to set timers on the two devices to trigger explosions where they would cause the greatest damage, the Times said.