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Two in Custody, Yemen Searches for Suspects in Bomb Plot

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Yemeni security forces stand outside the UPS office in the capital San'a, Yemen Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010

Yemeni security forces stand outside the UPS office in the capital San'a, Yemen Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010

Yemen's government says it continues to search for people linked to explosives found in air-cargo packages intercepted in Dubai and Britain. Yemeni officials have two women in custody, but their arrests have raised questions.

Authorities stepped up security across Sana'a as they searched for other suspects in the bombing plot. The women in custody are a university student, whose cellphone number is said to have been on one of the packages, and her mother.

But a human-rights lawyer in Sana'a says the available information indicates they were not involved.

Abdel-Rahman Barman says he thinks the woman is the victim of someone who used her phone number.

Stephen Steinbeiser of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sana'a, agrees.

"If someone is going to go to this length and this complexity of making some sort of a device and of trying to control it and send it, then it seems that at the very least they are going to provide some sort of fake information, whether its a phone number or address, so I am a little bit leery of that," Steinbeiser said.

But Steinbeiser notes the arrests were supposedly based on intelligence given to the Yemeni government, lending the charge some credence.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have stepped up their aid to Yemen during the past year to counter al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch of the terror group thought to be behind the plot.

U.S. officials called the bombs concealed in printer cartridges, "sophisticated", and noted similarities to explosives used in other, high-profile cases linked to al-Qaida bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, believed to be in Yemen. Saudi Arabia tipped off U.S. intelligence about the parcels.

Institute of Yemeni Studies Director Steinbeiser says Saudi Arabia has long had uneasy relations with its southern neighbor, with which it shares a long and porous border, but has recently shifted its priorities.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia realizes it has its own vested interest in combatting terrorism in Yemen and specifically keeping it in Yemen so that it does not trickle across the northern border to Saudi Arabia," Steinbeiser said. "So, I think they probably have bolstered some sort of intelligence presence within the country and I think it would be quite easy to do. Saudis and other members of Gulf countries can come freely in and out of the country.

Intelligence experts are concerned the latest alert, while possibly averting a disaster, could compromise possible intelligence networks.

Steinbeiser says while the Yemeni government has shown more willingness to work with foreign powers, it walks a fine line. Particularly troublesome is U.S. help, as President Ali Abdullah Saleh tries to balance the myriad allegiances of the country's tribes, many of them strongly anti-American.

"As long as the U.S. presence stays rather covert and quiet, then the Yemeni government will likely cooperate," Steinbeiser said. "But once that foreign presence in the country becomes overt, then I think the Yemeni government will not accept it."

U.S.-backed military strikes that have killed civilians and a local government official have increased disdain for foreign interference.

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