Information that helped thwart the plot of US 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, according to Yemeni security officials.
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 US 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 on Monday, that 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.
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 US ally 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 US intelligence officials. German officials said on Monday, that the mail bombs contained 10.58 ounces (300 grams) and 15.11 ounces (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 for which the al-Qaida had claimed responsibility.
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. While al-Fayfi may have provided broad outlines about the plot, it appears Saudi Arabia had other sources.
US 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 US 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 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 US 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-December 2001, during a US 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 San'a to bring him to Riyadh, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.
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.
The attack on the prince "was the thing that infuriated the Saudis and made them step up their intelligence operations in Yemen and almost completely sidestep the Yemenis," said a Yemeni security official familiar with the kingdom's activity in his country. "They recruited hundreds of informers and began to spend even more lavishly on their allies," said the official, who agreed to share the information in exchange for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
For years, Saudi Arabia has also been known to be giving cash rewards to tribal chiefs, senior military officers and politicians. In large areas of mountainous Yemen, where infrastructure is often poor to nonexistent, tribes hold far more power than the central government and are better aware of militants' comings and going. Some tribes, disenchanted with Sana'a, have provided shelter to al-Qaida fighters.
President Saleh, meanwhile, is hampered by trying to balance his policies toward the tribes, making it difficult for him to crack down on those harboring militants for fear of a backlash.
With oil revenues declining, he does not have the cash to tempt them to surrender the militants in exchange for better services or jobs for their followers. His security forces lack discipline and are poorly armed, save for those reporting directly to him or close family members, and are mostly deployed in Sana'a.