Image: Smoke billows from oil pipeline blown up in Yemen
Reuters
Smoke billows from the oil pipeline blown up in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/2/2010 7:18:16 PM ET 2010-11-02T23:18:16

Yemen launched an operation on Tuesday to arrest a Saudi bomb maker accused of being behind the foiled bomb plot involving U.S.-bound parcels, while suspected al-Qaida fighters blew up an oil pipeline, apparently in response.

Yemen's military, under international pressure to find the bomb maker, deployed to the south of the country, where the insurgents attacked the pipeline operated by the Korean National Oil Corporation. It was not clear if exports would be affected.

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"This is one of the things we should expect because al-Qaida wants to give the message to the Yemeni government that military escalation does not mean that al-Qaida will remain silent now — that they will react and escalate," Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director at Brookings Institute's Doha Center, told Reuters.

The aim of the military operation in the provinces of Maarib and Shabwa, where oil and gas fields of major international companies are located, was to capture suspected bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Yemeni security official said.

The attack on the pipeline was in Shabwa.

The mission is also to catch the U.S.-born radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who is wanted by Washington.

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-Qaida wing and who is thought to be in southern Yemen.

Interactive: Yemen (on this page)

"The timing of this (Awlaki) trial leaves no doubt that this is also in response to international pressure on the government," Sharqieh said.

The U.S. Treasury has blacklisted Awlaki as a "specially designated global terrorist." Earlier this year, the United States authorized the CIA to capture or kill him.

The two parcel bombs were intercepted last week on cargo planes in Britain and Dubai and are thought to be the work of al-Qaida's Yemen-based arm, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. officials say.

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.

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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 San'a 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.

Al-Qaida has in the past threatened to target Yemen's oil and gas infrastructure, but such attacks have been relatively rare. Disgruntled tribes have sporadically blown up pipelines to exert pressure on the government.

"It (the pipeline) is an easy target and doesn't need much planning. In all other easy targets especially in the southern parts of Yemen, we should expect to see some escalation at this time," Sharqieh said.

'Dry run'?
In a fresh development over the interception of the bombs, it was reported 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.

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"We received information several weeks ago that potentially connected these packages to AQAP. The boxes were stopped in transit and searched. They contained papers, books and other materials, but no explosives," an official, who was familiar with details of the shipments and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, told The Associated Press.

The official also disclosed that both mail bombs, one recovered in Dubai and the other in Britain on Friday, were wired to detonators that used cell phone technology.

It still was not clear whether those detonators would have been set off by telephone calls or by an internal alarm.

The bombs were hidden in printer toner cartridges and would have been powerful enough to destroy the planes carrying them, British officials 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.

Nobody, including the Internet-savvy al-Qaida group in Yemen, has taken credit for the failed attack. Jihadist Web sites contained numerous messages praising the attempted bombing but nothing official from the group's leadership.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Dry run may have preceded al-Qaida bomb plot

  1. Transcript of: Dry run may have preceded al-Qaida bomb plot

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: That terrorist plot involving cargo bombs from Yemen just keeps getting more troubling the more they learn. The FBI is now investigating what might have been a dry run and whether al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen sent packages to the US to see how long it would take. Our justice correspondent, Pete Williams , has been covering this, has an update for us tonight. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Right, Brian . Intelligence officials say this could have been an attempt to explore the logistics of international shipping. A month and a half ago in mid September, suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen sent three packages to Chicago . Nothing hazardous was found when the boxes were checked en route and allowed to continue. They contained mostly books and papers. Nothing like the computer printers that hid explosives in the two packages sent last week. In Europe police are chasing a separate spate of package bombs, mostly in Greece , where they've made two arrests. Two bombs went off outside the Russian and Swiss embassies . Two others were found and destroyed at the Athens airport . And in Germany , police disarmed a bomb sent from Greece to the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel . Nobody's been hurt. The police suspect a radical anti-government group, but it's raising more questions about

    cargo screening. Brian: All troubling stuff, you're right, Pete . Pete Williams in Washington ,

    B. WILLIAMS:

Interactive: Suspicious packages

  1. Above: Interactive Suspicious packages
  2. Interactive Yemen

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