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Did al-Qaida commander telegraph cargo bomb plot?

An al-Qaida military commander in Yemen appeared to forecast a major upcoming terror operation against the West using experimental "explosive charges" in a little-noticed audiotape issued three weeks ago. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.
Image: Yemen-based al-Qaeda wing military chief Qassim al-Raymi
An undated Yemeni police wanted poster released by the Yemeni Interior Ministry on Oct. 12 shows two different images of Qasim al-Raymi. YEMENI INTERIOR MINISTRY / HANDO / EPA
/ Source: NBC News

Some U.S. intelligence officials investigating the printer bomb plot are focusing on the suspected role of an al-Qaida military commander in Yemen who, in a little noticed audiotape just three weeks ago, appeared to forecast a major upcoming terror operation against the West using experimental "explosive charges" and "suitable munitions." 

Qasim al Raymi, a fanatical jihadi who is considered by some officials the most dangerous member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), hinted several times on the tape about an upcoming attack. He referred at one point to the use of explosives "as an experiment" as well as a cryptic reference to "the most important card" that might soon be used, without explaining what that might be, according to an English translation of the audiotape obtained Monday by NBC News.

In the long and rambling audiotape, which was released by AQAP in the second week of October and got almost no public attention at the time, al Raymi threatened the overthrow of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But he also he hinted at upcoming "external operations," adding: "The operations are being planned and prepared day and night. God willing, soon the ummah of Islam (the Islamic world) will hear what heals their hearts toward its enemy." 

While it is not unusual for AQAP operatives to make public threats of terror attacks,  some of the language used by al Raymi in the audiotape  has led U.S. analysts to conclude that he may well have been referring to the plot to send sophisticated bombs concealed in printer cartridges that was foiled late last week.

"He was forecasting the operation," said one U.S. government official familiar with the audiotape, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He mentioned they were going to be using these new techniques."

At the same time, some U.S. officials were casting doubt on the role that a former Guantanamo detainee may have played in tipping off Saudi authorities to the plot. According to some widely circulated reports, Jaber al-Faifi, had provided the crucial intelligence about the existence of explosives concealed in the cargo aboard planes that were intercepted last week in Dubai and the United Kingdom.  But U.S. officials now say it is unlikely that he was in a position to have specific information about the details and timing of the plot.

The former detainee, Jaber al-Faifi, was released from Guantanamo in early 2007, then graduated from a Saudi "rehabilitation" program — only to flee to Yemen and rejoin with AQAP. But in early September, al-Faifi is supposed to have contacted Saudi authorities saying he wanted to turn himself in. AQAP publicly announced that al-Faifi had been "captured" by the Saudis as early as Sept. 3, according to Gregory Johnsen, an analyst with Princeton University who is one of the leading authorities on AQAP.

Either way, U.S. officials said al-Faifi had left AQAP far too early to have had specific intelligence about which planes the printer bombs were concealed in. Moreover, given that AQAP clearly knew that al Faifi was in Saudi custody, they would have likely taken steps to change any operational plans he was privy to, they said.

"At some point, the logic falls off the train," said one official, referring to reports that al-Faifi provided the crucial intelligence that foiled the plot. "He left (AQAP) too early."

This does not mean that al Faifi did not provide other useful information that might have helped lead to the plot as well as about other operations, the officials said, including reports that AQAP was planning attacks in France and other countries in western Europe.

Still, the disputed reports about al-Faifi appear to indicate that U.S. officials have yet to piece together a full picture of how the package plot came about and who was behind it.

While some U.S. officials have publicly talked about other AQAP figures as likely suspects in the plot — including bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri and radical imam Anwar Al-Awlaki — others say that al Raymi is a far more important player in the group and the most likely mastermind of the attempted attack.

Al Raymi is considered perhaps the most ruthless of all AQAP figures. He once threatened to cut off the leg of a Yemeni prosecutor who put him on trial and has gained stature within the organization since he escaped from Yemeni prison (along with 22 other al-Qaida  operatives) in 2006. Last January, the Yemeni government announced that al Raymi was killed in an airstrike along the Saudi border, only to be embarrassed shortly thereafter when he resurfaced as one of AQAP’s key leaders.

Al Raymi, a Yemeni who went to Afghanistan in the 1990’s and met Osama bin Laden, has been linked to  numerous AQAP plots, including a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, a Saudi militant who killed himself during an attempt to assassinate the Saudi deputy interior minister last year (and the brother of Ibrahim Asiri, AQAP’s bomb-maker) once served as al Raymi’s bodyguard, a U.S. official said.

"He’s the real one, he’s the planner," said one U.S official. "He’s the most dangerous guy."