Image: Yemeni police stop a car at a checkpoint Thursday.
Hasan Jamali  /  AP
Yemeni policemen stop a car at a checkpoint Thursday at a street in the capital San'a.
updated 11/6/2010 3:12:41 PM ET 2010-11-06T19:12:41

A Saudi tip about a possible al-Qaida effort to bring down airplanes was relayed to U.S. authorities in early October, nearly three weeks before the group's Yemen affiliate tried to ship mail bombs to the U.S. in cargo planes, U.S. intelligence officials said Friday.

The Saudi intelligence tip helped to head off what could have been a devastating series of plane explosions. Western officials credit the Saudis with playing a crucial role in finding two mail bombs recovered last week in Dubai and Britain before they reached the U.S.

Meanwhile on Saturday, Interpol said it was making public the features and components of the two bombs. The France-based international police agency said it had provided an alert to its 188 member countries about the devices and will make a public version available "to encourage greater vigilance."

Interpol said in a statement Saturday the alert sent to members shows how the bombs were disguised inside computer printer cartridges and other features to help authorities spot dangerous

The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for sending the two bombs and threatened more attacks on civilian and cargo planes. The group also said it had a role in the crash of a UPS cargo plane in Dubai in September, but investigators so far have insisted an accident was at fault.

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The Saudi tip in October contained no mention of cargo planes, or any details of the plot carried out last week, said U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters. But they said it gave the U.S. and other Western officials enough of a warning to know what to look for when another Saudi tip arrived last week.

'Quick and aggressive' response
A CIA spokesman Friday night cited several allies that have provided key intelligence about terrorist activities.

"Over the past several months, we received intelligence — which was shared across our government — from our foreign partners about threats from AQAP and other terrorist groups," said CIA spokesman George Little. "The United States receives this kind of information from other governments on a regular basis, as you would expect. Last week, we received specific intelligence that allowed the United States and our allies to disrupt the cargo plot. Our actions were swift and aggressive."

Another U.S. official said the Yemeni terror group's interest in plane attacks has been apparent since its failed Christmas Day attempt last year to bring down a Detroit-bound plane with explosives hidden in the underwear of a suicide bomber. Both the Christmas Day attack and the mail bombs sent last week used a powerful industrial explosive PETN, and the AQAP's top bomb maker is considered a top suspect in both attempts.

But although the tip relayed in October did raise alarms about a plane attack, it did not mention cargo planes or where the plot might originate or even who the attackers might be, the official said.

U.S. intelligence had been monitoring steady intelligence on a possible attack such as this since early September, one U.S. official has said. And in late September, authorities also intercepted a group of packages shipped to Chicago which in retrospect is now seen as a likely test run by the terror group to gauge the logistics of shipping bombs by air to the U.S.

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The report on the Saudi tip in October was first reported Friday by The New York Times and the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Al-Qaida claim accurate?
On Friday, AQAP said it would continue to strike American and Western interests and specifically said it would target civilian and cargo aircraft.

"We have struck three blows at your airplanes in a single year," the group said in a message posted on a militant website. "And God willing, we will continue to strike our blows against American interests and the interests of America's allies."

The authenticity of Friday's claim could not be immediately verified. A U.S. intelligence official said authorities are not surprised to see this claim now.

Authorities in the U.S. and the U.A.E. have said the Sept. 3 crash of the UPS plane in Dubai shortly after takeoff was caused by an onboard fire, but investigators are taking another look at the incident following the parcel bomb plot .

A security official in the U.A.E. familiar with the investigations into the UPS cargo plane crash in Dubai and the mail bombs plot told The Associated Press on Friday that there is no change in earlier findings and that the UPS crash in September was likely caused by an onboard fire and not by an explosive device.

"There was no explosion," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under standing U.A.E. rules on disclosing security-related information.

A UPS spokesman, Norman Black, said his company had "no independent knowledge of this claim by al-Qaida," and noted that both U.A.E. officials and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board officials have so far ruled out the possibility of a bomb as cause in the crash.

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In its statement, al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoot said that it "downed the UPS airplane but because the enemy's media did not attribute the act to us, we kept silent about the operation until we could return the ball once more.

"We have done that, this time with two explosives, one of them sent via UPS, the other via FedEx."

It said that its "advanced explosives" give it "the opportunity to detonate (planes) in the air or after they have reached their final target, and they are designed to bypass all detection devices."

Both mail bombs were hidden inside computer printers and wired to detonators that used cell-phone technology and packed powdered PETN, a potent industrial explosive.

The message also directed a warning to Saudi Arabia, warning: "God's curse on the oppressors."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Bomb tipoff came from former Gitmo detainee

  1. Transcript of: Bomb tipoff came from former Gitmo detainee

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: on edge tonight about the safety of air travel and air cargo , for that matter, just days after those two mail bombs were intercepted from Yemen before they could reach this country. And there's a new twist tonight, word that a source who helped uncover this plot was actually once held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay , Cuba . Our justice correspondent Pete Williams continues to follow this story out of our Washington newsroom. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian , the federal government has been criticized in the past for releasing detainees in Guantanamo who end up joining al-Qaeda . Now officials in Yemen say it was a former Gitmo detainee who helped alert intelligence officials that an attack was being planned. Yemeni officials say information that played a role in launching a frantic search for the two packages was provided by a detainee who had been held by the US at Guantanamo Bay about four years. Jaber al - Faifi , a 35-year-old Saudi released three years ago and sent to a Saudi rehabilitation center like this one, where former terrorists are taught to abandon their old ways. Al- Faifi escaped to Yemen and was thought to have joined al-Qaeda there. The Saudi government announced last month that he had surrendered and returned.

    Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): He was one of Saudi Arabia 's most wanted individuals, a former Gitmo detainee who rejoined al-Qaeda . His decision to surrender to the Saudis was of tremendous significance.

    P. WILLIAMS: Now Yemeni officials, who are eager to demonstrate their cooperation with the US, say he provided useful information about the plot. The White House and CIA refused to discuss what role, if any at all, he played in discovering it. Investigators say one of the intercepted bombs held nearly a pound of PETN , a high explosive powder.

    Unidentified Man: This is PETN .

    P. WILLIAMS: An explosive expert in England today demonstrated the destructive power in roughly that amount of PETN .

    Offscreen Voice: Two, one!

    P. WILLIAMS: The US has stopped accepting any packages from Yemen and has sent experts there to help improve cargo security. While the US has no authority to exam cargo overseas, it's urging other countries to improve their screening.

    Ms. JANET NAPOLITANO (Homeland Security Secretary): We always learn from these incidents or these attempts, and we will make adjustments as this attempt warrants.

    P. WILLIAMS: As for the bombs themselves, US officials say there's no clear idea yet how they were suppose to work; whether they were, in fact, fully functional and, if so, what the targets actually were. And it may be several more days before any of that is known, Brian .

    B. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams in our Washington newsroom tonight. Pete , thanks.


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