SANA'A // The Yemeni woman arrested in the investigation into mail bombs found in Dubai and England has nothing to do with the terror plot, her lawyer said yesterday
"We believe she is innocent and has been tricked," said Abdulrehman Barman, a lawyer at the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, in Sana'a.
Last night Yemen authorities released Hanan Mohammed al Samawi, a 22-year-old University of Sana'a student. She agreed to make herself available for further questioning.
Police had arrested Ms al Samawi after her mobile phone number was found on a receipt linked to the packages dropped at FedEx and UPS offices in Sana'a and found on planes in Dubai and England after a tip-off from intelligence officials in Saudi Arabia.
Hundreds of students at the university had protested yesterday against Ms al Samawi's arrest and demanded that she be released.
A spokesman for Qatar Airways said yesterday one of the bombs addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area had travelled on two passenger planes in the Middle East.
A package containing explosives hidden in a printer cartridge arrived at Qatar Airways' hub in Doha on one of the carrier's flights from Sana'a. It was then shipped on a separate Qatar Airways plane to Dubai, where it was discovered by authorities late on Thursday or early on Friday. A second, similar package turned up in England on Friday.
The spokesman did not give any timeframe for the two flights. The airline operates daily passenger flights from Yemen that could also carry courier packages.
The plot exposes security gaps in international air travel and cargo shipping nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks on the United States and showed terrorists appear to be probing those vulnerabilities. The US said the plot bore the hallmarks of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group's offshoot in Yemen, which was behind the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas.
In Dubai and London yesterday, aviation officials said it was extremely difficult to screen cargo thoroughly. They said the kind of intelligence that led to tips about the bombs remained essential to airline safety.
In Washington, Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said yesterday that authorities "have to presume" there might be more mail bombs.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, said he believed the bomb found at East Midlands airport in England was intended to detonate on the plane.
The home secretary, Theresa May, said it was powerful enough to take down the aircraft. A US official said the bomb found in Dubai was thought to be similar in strength.
A US official and a British security consultant said yesterday that the bomb that turned up in England nearly slipped past investigators even after they were tipped off.
After a six-hour sweep of cargo at the airport, Leicestershire police failed to find the bomb and removed the security perimeter they had set up, British aviation safety consultant Chris Yates said.
But when officials in Dubai discovered a bomb disguised as a computer printer cartridge, authorities urged the British to look again.
“As a direct consequence, they put the cordon back up again and looked again and found the explosives,” said Mr Yates.
Brennan, Mr Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, called it “a very sophisticated device, in terms of how it was constructed”.
“It was a viable device. It was self-contained, so it could have been detonated and activated,” Mr Brennan told NBC’s Meet the Press. Officials were trying to determine whether the planes or the synagogues were the intended targets, he said
In Yemen yesterday, the police investigation continued. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, told reporters that the UAE and the US had provided intelligence that helped to identify Ms al Samawi.
The student is not known to be involved in any political activity or to have ties to any Islamic groups, Mr Barman said. He said she had not been allowed access to a lawyer.
“Finding her phone number on the parcel is not enough evidence of her involvement,” Mr Barman said. “We are afraid she might be a victim of the unruly war on terrorism.”
Hundreds of Sana’a University students protested in front of the campus. “Am I terrorist if I have lost my ID card?” one poster read.
“Hanan is a cheerful person and a hardworking student. She is not the kind of person who hates the West. She loves foreign movies and music and laughs with her friends,” said Suha Shjuaaeddin, her classmate.
Ms al Samawi lives with her parents and is the eldest of seven children.
“There is nothing suspicious about the girl and her family. There is a broad resentment at her arrest among all the people here,” said Abdulrehman Shaikhan, a 20-year-old neighbour of the family.
Yemeni officials said additional suspects were believed to have used forged documents and ID cards. One member of Yemen’s anti-terrorism unit said the other suspects had been tied to al Qa’eda. Authorities were also looking at two language institutions in Yemen with which the plotters may have been associated.
It was still not clear whether the bombs, which were wired to mobile phones, timers and power supplies, could have been detonated remotely while the planes were in the air, or when the packages were halfway around the world in the US.
Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the failed bomb last Christmas that used PETN, an explosive that was also in the mail bombs found on Friday.
The suspected bombmaker behind the Christmas attack, Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri, is also the prime suspect in the mail bomb plot. He helped to make another PETN device for a failed suicide attempt against Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief last year. The attacker died in that blast.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press