WASHINGTON // The interception of two parcel bombs in Dubai and England after a tip-off from Saudi Arabia has been hailed in the US as a major success for international intelligence co-operation.
Barack Obama, the US president, placed a personal call to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Saturday to express his "strong appreciation for the critical role played by Saudi counterterrorism officials".
A White House statement on Friday, meanwhile, made a point by highlighting the "hard work of the US counterterrorism community, the United Kingdom, the UAE, and other friends and partners".
The identification of the Saudi militant Ibrahim al Asiri as the main suspect in the plot proves the key role that Saudis play in al Qa'eda's Yemen-based branch. The alleged al Qa'eda bombmaker Asiri is just one of dozens of Saudis who fled an operation against Islamist militants in their country in 2005-2006 and joined al Qa'eda in Yemen.
They banded together with 11 former detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison, who were repatriated to Saudi Arabia but then fled after undergoing the country's militant rehabilitation programme.
The plot has also revealed holes in a technological security screening system largely geared towards facilitating an international cargo transport network, where delays could prove to be costly to a global economy dependent on rapid delivery of goods.
According to The New York Times, only about 65 per cent of the cargo entering the US on passenger planes from abroad are screened, in spite of a legislation in 2007 that made such screening compulsory on all air cargo.
Even when cargo is screened, X-ray machines, as in this case, may fail to set off alarms. Indeed, much has been made of the sophistication of the latest plot, which, according to John Brennan, Mr Obama's counterterrorism adviser, "bore all the hallmarks" of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The bombs were discovered only after a Saudi tip-off based on information apparently obtained from human intelligence. The explosives had been so well concealed that both went undetected during screening in other countries. The bomb discovered in Dubai had come through Qatar, and the one intercepted in Britain had arrived via Germany. Even after British officials had received the tip-off, it took them 20 hours to identify the bomb.
That, said Mark Perry, an independent military analyst based in Washington, underlined the importance of human intelligence, and why the Saudi role had proved pivotal.
"The fact that the Saudis tipped us off and [US intelligence] hadn't picked it up, means you have to penetrate these organisations. We haven't done it as well as the Saudis, because they are right there," he said.
Mr Brennan told US networks on Sunday that the plot had been "very sophisticated" but was "very similar in terms of the types of materials and the construction to some other devices that we have seen". He said US intelligence was now inclined to believe that the intention had been to blow up the bombs mid-air over the US and bring down the planes, rather than have them delivered to a specific address.
Mr Perry suggested that the use of cargo planes was out of a "probing for weakness in the system".
"It's not that easy to get someone with a bomb sewn into his underwear on to a plane these days."
Nevertheless, he said, it also showed that "al Qa'eda is pretty adaptable. They are nowhere near defeated".
According to Mr Brennan, the plot was evidence that al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula was now "the most active operational franchise" beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan, and US intelligence sees Yemen as being particularly vulnerable.
Since June, Yemen has seen an increase in violence. The government has blamed the killing of dozens of security personnel in a series of raids in southern cities on al Qa'eda.
The country is also battling separatists in the north, fighting that in the past year pulled in Saudi Arabia, Yemen's northern neighbour.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse