SAN'A, Yemen — A member of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula gave authorities the key tip-off that led to the discovery of the two mail bombs sent from Yemen to the U.S., Yemeni officials said Monday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, the sources said the tip-off came from former Guantanamo detainee Jaber al-Faifi, who had earlier turned himself in to Saudi Arabia.
Several tribal leaders with knowledge of the situation, who similarly spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed his role.
Some U.S. officials, however, told NBC News they doubt that al-Faifi provided the key tip, saying he had left a Yemen terror group too early to have specific knowledge of the plot. The White House and CIA refused to discuss what role, if any at all, al-Faifi played in discovering it.
Al-Faifi had reportedly rejoined Yemen's Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula faction after he had been released from Guantanamo and completed a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia.
The BBC said it was told by Saudi Arabia's interior ministry spokesman that al-Faifi contacted government officials to say he wanted to return home, which was arranged through Yemen's government.
A U.S. official and a British security consultant said previously that the device found in the U.K., which was hidden in a printer cartridge, was so sophisticated that it nearly slipped past British investigators even after the tip-off was passed on by Saudi Arabian authorities.
British Home Secretary Theresa May has also said the bomb was powerful enough to bring down the aircraft that brought it to England.
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Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that al-Faifi had turned himself in.
Al-Faifi, who is in mid-30s, had been captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan following the 2001 toppling of the Taliban there.
He was held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 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 his release from the program, he fled to neighboring Yemen and joined al-Qaida there, 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 Yemeni capital San'a to retrieve him, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat at the time.
The Yemeni security officials said they suspect that the Saudis planted al-Faifi in al-Qaida in Yemen as a double agent.
Al-Faifi's surrender may have revealed other plots as well. In mid-October, Saudi Arabia warned European authorities of a new terror threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, saying the group's operatives were active on the continent, particularly in France.
Saudi Arabia has for years been working to infiltrate al-Qaida in its unstable neighbor to the south, Yemen. Saudi intelligence has recruited hundreds of informers in Yemen, gives powerful tribal chiefs generous stipends to ensure their loyalty and even passes out money within Yemen's security forces.
The Saudis, who have fought a brutal war against al-Qaida militants at home over the past decade, have been unhappy about how Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government has handled the growing threat from al-Qaida in the poor Arab nation in their backyard.
The kingdom sees Yemen's security forces as incompetent and their intelligence gathering inadequate.Interactive: Track the search for suspicious packages (on this page)
Lookout for more bombs
Both mail bombs, which were discovered last week, were addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area. The second was intercepted in Dubai.
U.S. counterterrorism officials warned Monday that local law enforcement and emergency personnel should be on the lookout for mail that could have dangerous substances hidden inside.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department said packages from a foreign country with no return addresses and excessive postage needed to be scrutinized, according to an advisory sent to local officials around the country and obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
While officials caught the two bombs sent to Chicago-area addresses, U.S. officials say there may be more in the system.
Concern that more bombs could still be sent led Germany to extend its ban on cargo aircraft from Yemen to include passenger flights Monday.
The bomb found in the U.K. was routed through the UPS hub in Cologne, Germany.
An international investigation involving several countries is underway to catch the people behind the bombs.
An official security source told The Associated Press that authorities in the United Arab Emirates were tracing the serial numbers of a mobile phone circuit board and computer printer used in the mail bomb found in Dubai, which is part of the UAE.
The security source said the UAE was sharing the numbers with other countries including the United States in an effort to track the origins of the bomb parts. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
U.S. intelligence officials have named the chief suspect in the plot as Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is believed to be a member of the leadership of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
He is also suspected of sending his own brother on a suicide mission against a top Saudi official.Video: Small bombs could have big impact (on this page)
Al-Asiri and his brother abruptly left their Mecca home three years ago, their father, a four-decade veteran of the Saudi military, said. Aside from a brief phone call to say they had left the country, he never heard from them again.
With the bomb hidden in a body cavity, Abdullah approached the prince and blew himself up. The prince was only wounded.
"That 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.
Al-Asiri, who is living in Yemen, is also believed to have packed explosives — called PETN, which was also used in the two mail bombs — into the underwear of a Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas.
Yemeni security officials said they were searching for al-Asiri, who is believed to be in Yemen's Marib province.
CIA hunter-killer teams?
Meantime, the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed officials, reported Monday that there was growing support within the Obama administration and military to put elite U.S. hunter-killer teams under CIA — rather than military — control to help catch al-Asiri and other wanted militants.
The paper said this would allow the U.S. to attack terrorist targets "unilaterally with greater stealth and speed ... even without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government."
Because CIA operations are covert, this would enable the Yemeni government to deny knowledge of operations. The Journal also said the White House was already considering the use of CIA drones in Yemen.
Yemen has allowed the some U.S. military operations against al-Qaida, the paper said, but has also delayed or objected to others.
"At the end of the day, they limit us when we are getting too close," a senior U.S. official said, according to the Journal.
At Yemen's Sanaa University on Monday, a rally was held in support of Hanan al-Samawi, who was arrested but later released by Yemeni authorities in connection with the plot, NBC News reported. A government official said another woman had used her name and identity when sending one of the packages.Story: Yemen frees student held over parcel bombs
Al-Samawi, a student, and her father drove in and around the campus to the chants and cheers of about 3,000 to 4,000 people for about an hour, NBC News said.
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