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More Questions Than Answers
The Yemeni Toner Cartridge Bomb Story
by GARY LEUPP

Jeff Huber on Antiwar.com wrote Monday about the Yemeni toner cartridge bomb story:  “…if there’s a single substantiated syllable in that entire narrative, I have yet to encounter it in the New York Times. In a series of articles from 29, 30, and 31 October, our newspaper of tarnished record created enough cognitive dissonance to drive the Dalai Lama to a therapist’s couch.”    I think that a bit of an exaggeration, but what have the NYT and other mainstream press organs told us?

On Thursday, Oct. 28, intelligence officials in Saudi Arabia informed U.S. intelligence officials that UPS and FedEx packages carrying explosives had been mailed from Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, to Chicago via two airplanes. They provided the tracking numbers. (It was later revealed that they acted on a tip from a former member of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. He was subsequently identified by AP as Jabir al-Fayti, a Saudi national.) The UPS cargo plane stopped in Qatar, then Dubai, where local officials quickly discovered the device inside a Hewett-Packard printer. The FedEx cargo plane stopped at East Midlands Airport in England, where the other bomb was found. At 10:45 President Obama was briefed about the situation.

On Friday, cargo planes arriving in Philadelphia and Newark were searched, and in Brooklyn a UPS truck was stopped and inspected. No bombs or explosives were found. Meanwhile U.S. and Canadian fighter jets accompanied a passenger flight from the United Arab Emirates to New York, where the aircraft was searched. Nothing suspicious was found here either.

In the afternoon Obama made a statement from the White House, praising U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials and declaring, “The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism. The American people should be confidant that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.” He added that the packages had been mailed to “specifically two places of Jewish worship in Chicago.”

That night, according to the Chicago Tribune, the congregation of Or Chadash, a synagogue in the Edgewater neighborhood, was informed by its rabbi that “a reliable and well-placed Jewish community source” had reported that Or Chadash had been one of the targets. However, the newspaper also reported that “a source close to the investigation” had stated that the packages were addressed to synagogues in East Rogers Park and Lake View neighborhoods.

Subsequent reports suggested that a small (100 member) lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender congregation called Or Chadash, which shares the Emmanuel synagogue in Lake View, was a target rather than the Edgewater synagogue.

On Friday the NYT also reported that  U.S. officials felt that “evidence is mounting” that AQAP including New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki were involved in the plot. They said they were “operating on the assumption” that AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri had produced the bombs. (They had concluded he was also responsible for the explosives that “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed to detonate on the Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit last Christmas Day.) The argument was apparently based on the fact that the packages contained pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) such as the underwear bomber had carried. But “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid also attempted to blow up a passenger plane in December 2001 using PETN, and he had no connection to Yemen or al-Asiri. He received training in Afghanistan, which al-Asiri has apparently never visited.
John O’Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism advisor, stated that investigators didn’t yet know how the explosives were supposed to be activated. “[T]here’s some question,” writes Huber, “not only as to whether al-Qaeda was behind the attempted airplane bombings, but as to whether any actual bombs were involved. The bomb they found in or around the plane in Dubai was similar to the package found in England, but maybe the package found in England wasn’t actually a bomb.”

On Saturday officials including Brennan praised the Saudi and Yemeni governments for their cooperation while Yemeni officials acting on a tip from U.S. officials arrested a woman suspected of delivering the packages to UPS and FedEx in Sana’a. The Department of Homeland Security dispatched a cable indicating that the packages may have been connected to the “Yemen-American Institute for Language-Computer Management” and the “American Center for Training” in Sana’a. The same day the Emmanuel synagogue rabbi told CNN that a Chicago Jewish source “well-connected to the authorities” had told him that his congregation hadn’t really been a target. (Are we then supposed to believe that the plan was to bomb the building only when the Or Chadash LGPT folks were using it?)

Meanwhile both British Home Minister Theresa May and Prime Minister David Cameron opined that the device on the plane that had arrived at the East Midlands Airport was designed to explode while the plane was flying. Brennen then stated during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday morning:  “At this point we, I think, would agree with the British that it looks as though they were designed to be detonated in flight.” In other words, they weren’t targeting “two places of Jewish worship in Chicago” but cargo planes.

On Tuesday Nov. 2 Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane of the NYT reported that the packages had been addressed to “Diego Deza” and “Reynald Krak.” The former was a notorious Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century, who tortured people accused of being secret Muslims. The latter name is a rare variant of  Raynald of Chatillon, a French knight who slaughtered Muslims en route to Mecca as pilgrims during the Second Crusade in the twelfth century. (The chivalrous Muslim commander Saladin personally beheaded him as punishment.) The journalists called it a “sardonic choice” to include these “two dark inside jokes.”

But this raises the question of why AQAP would address the packages designed to explode in flight bringing down cargo planes to two Chicago synagogues under the names of two notorious enemies of Islam. Wouldn’t a package from Yemen, an unstable country intermittently targeted by U.S. drone-fired missiles, home of a group identified by U.S. officials as the greatest threat to U.S. security outside the “Af-Pak” border region, a country with only a handful of aging Jews, addressed to U.S. synagogues under the names chosen risk arousing suspicion? Wouldn’t the packages just be crying out, “Inspect me!”? If they were supposed to explode in flight anyway, wouldn’t it have made more sense to address them to some random street address under random names?

But let’s say packages were delivered to the two synagogues in Chicago, and did some damage. How would that help AQAP? Perhaps the cultural proclivity to demand “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” following the significant civilian death toll due to drone attacks might motivate this sort of response, especially given AQAP’s assumption that Jews direct U.S. foreign policy. But the organization surely knows that the powerful Israeli Lobby would suddenly press for more U.S. action in and against Yemen. Is that what it wants, to make Yemen another Afghanistan? It is possible that such a scenario fits in with a strategy of clearly pitting Islam against the west, and perhaps they figure that they could rally local support in the wake of a U.S. assault. But that is not at all clear at this point.

The involvement of al-Asiri seems taken for granted. But the underwear bomber’s device he is alleged to have designed was described by the world press as “crude,” and his effort to assassinate  the Saudi counter-terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in August 2009 was both crude and botched. (His suicide-bomber younger brother Abdullah, armed with three ounces of PETN in his anus—or some say, in his underwear—succeeded in blowing himself in half but only lightly injuring the prince.) Yet unnamed officials quoted in the Sunday NYT  stated those on the cargo planes were “expertly constructed and unusually sophisticated.”  The Christian Science Monitor reports that officials think them “a big step up from two previous international bombing attempts” involving al-Asiri. How has the 28 year old King Saud University chemistry-major dropout hiding out somewhere in East Yemen so substantially honed his bomb making skills in the last 10 months?

And what about this Jabir al-Fayti? He’d had been captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces, held at Guantanamo to 2007, released into Saudi custody where he completed a rehabilitation program, upon release joined AQAP in Yemen, then left AQAP to gave himself up to Saudi authorities last September. They sent a private jet to Sana’a to pick him up, according to AP. You have to wonder who he’s really working for. The Saudis are known to be trying to infiltrate AQAP. The Saudis fear and detest AQAP and join with the U.S. in urging Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, beleaguered by two regional insurgencies more important to him than the two or three hundred AQAP militants in his country, to take firmer action against the small group. Might they wish to create an incident that would encourage Obama to strike harder at Yemen?

How did the Saudis get the tracking numbers so quickly? Did al-Fayti supply them? Or the name of the woman who had sent them? Or did he know the addresses and names of the addressees?

What about the arrested woman? Hanan al-Samawi is a 22 year old engineering student at Sana’a University who enjoys Western music and reads popular Western books. Detained Saturday on “a U.S. tip” she was released the following day when Yemeni police determined that someone had stolen her identity. Perhaps the real sender will never be known. What of the two language schools in Sana’a that Homeland Security was connecting to al-Qaeda? On Monday, Nov. 1, the NYT indicated that neither institution seems to exist. There’s a U.S. State Department-run Yemen American Language Institute but its director said Monday that it never uses UPS or FedEx.

What is AQAP saying about all this? So far, nothing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t responsible; AQAP only took credit for a Sept. 25 attack on a security bus in Yemen two weeks later (on Oct. 9). But three days after the underwear bomber incident last year the group released a message claiming responsibility. A full week has gone by with no claim of responsibility by AQAP for the toner cartridge explosives.

What of the official security threat assessment? Homeland Security has pointedly avoided upping the color-coded “threat level” even as it warns of the need for greater cargo plane inspection. But the Defense Department mulls more drone attacks and the dispatch of what the Wall Street Journal recently termed “U.S. elite hunter-killer teams” controlled by the CIA on the ground in Yemen. All such measures could be justified as a prudent response to the aborted attacks. They have other uses too, such as making Obama look strong and efficient a couple days before the mid-term elections.

The incident strengthens and encourages all manner of war-mongers. The Weekly Standard’s Thomas Jocelyn manages to argue that this episode proves that U.S. torture of detainees at Guantanamo (including Yemenis, who have made up the largest group since January 2008) isn’t the “driving force behind AQAP’s terror” but rather “the terrorists’ jihadist ideology, which the Obama administration spends much of its time ignoring.” (So why worry about provoking ordinary Yemenis with drone missile attacks and the abuse of their countrymen when the underlying cause for hatred of the U.S. is Islamist “jihadism” from Afghanistan to Somalia?)

Liz Cheney, deputy secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs under the Bush/Cheney administration, appeared on Fox News to argue that al-Qaeda was probing “the weakest spot in our system” by targeting cargo planes and that “that’s why intelligence becomes so important. It’s why I believe that the steps that this president has taken, for example, threatening to prosecute intelligence officials, are so dangerous and damaging for the nation. It’s why the Wikileaks, the leaks are so damaging.”

Cognitive dissonance aside, the reportage on this episode has been fraught with contradictions, leaves many unanswered questions, and serves the interests of those bent on perpetuating and expanding wars based on lies and fear.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu