SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen on Sunday freed a woman suspected of mailing two parcel bombs found on U.S.-bound planes, saying she had been a victim of identity theft.
Governments, airlines and aviation authorities around the world are reviewing security after the bombs were intercepted in Dubai and Britain on Friday. The bombs had all the hallmarks of al Qaeda, U.S. officials said.
Yemeni police arrested the woman, a student believed to be in her 20s, after tracing her through a telephone number she left with a cargo company.
But when the shipping agent was called in to identify her, he said she was not the right person, a Yemeni official said.
“Authorities concluded that this was a case of stolen identity by an individual who knew the detained suspect’s full name, address and telephone number,” he said.
Dozens of students had staged a sit-in in the courtyard of Sanaa University’s engineering faculty calling for her release.
The student was the only person to be arrested so far in connection with the bomb plot, and her release will renew pressure on Yemen from the United States and others to hunt down the perpetrators.
A U.S. official said a Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was a key suspect.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who tops a Saudi Arabian terrorism wanted list, is the brother of a suicide bomber killed last year in a bid to assassinate Saudi counter-terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
That attack, as well as another attempt on a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, involved the use of pentaerythritol trinitrate (PETN) — a highly potent explosive that appears to be AQAP’s weapon of choice.
At least one of the two devices sent from Yemen addressed to synagogues in Chicago employed PETN, the U.S. official said.
“The individual who has been making these bombs ... is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience. And we need to find him. We need to bring him to justice as soon as we can,” White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan told ABC News.
“I think the indications are right now, based on the forensics analysis, that it’s an individual who has been responsible for putting these devices together, the same.”
The Yemeni official said American and British investigators would soon join Yemeni authorities to form a joint investigation task force.
U.S. drone aircraft are widely believed to be behind strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, much as they are in Pakistan, although Washington does not acknowledge them. Yemeni officials worry an overt U.S. military presence could attract a backlash.
Governments around the world are now scrambling to reassess security and close any loopholes that allowed the bombs through.
British Home Secretary Theresa May said security around all international air cargo arriving in Britain was being reviewed.
“We are looking at the screening of freight. We will be looking at the processes we use. We’ll be talking with the (aviation) industry about these issues,” she told the BBC.
“I think crucially ... we did yesterday act, we did direct the industry that they should not be accepting freight originating from the Yemen, bringing it into the UK, or, crucially, transiting through the UK.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Saturday the bomb found at East Midlands Airport was designed to blow an aircraft out of the sky — possibly over Britain.
The British pilots’ union BALPA said the focus on passenger security had left the “door open” for attacks on cargo flights. It said pilots had warned of the vulnerability for years. Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, told Reuters that cargo security was the “Achilles heel” of air transport.
But private airport operator BAA, which runs Britain’s biggest airport, Heathrow, among others, said it was awaiting formal instructions from authorities.
“Any increase in security (cargo and passenger) would come from the government, but to date there have been no changes made to our requirements,” a spokeswoman said.
The British International Freight Association (BIFA), which represents cargo interests, warned against a knee-jerk reaction.
Speaking to the BBC, the director general of BIFA, Peter Quantrill said: “It would be wrong to suggest that air freight security is not treated in the same way as passengers when it comes to security.”
Both Germany and France have now stopped all air freight from Yemen following the discovery of the plot.
Germany’s federal crime office (BKA) said it had tipped off British authorities about the parcel bomb intercepted in Britain after it had trans-shipped through Cologne-Bonn airport.
By the time German authorities had been informed about the suspect device, it was too late to intervene themselves.
“It was already on the way to Britain,” a BKA spokeswoman said. “We managed to inform our partners in London so that they were able to look specifically for the package and find it.”
The plot could speed up calls for wider use of sophisticated imaging technology designed to detect explosives in air cargo, which is not standard, but freight firms are reluctant to bear the full cost, transport officials said.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Sudam and Khaled Abdullah in Sanaa, Stefano Ambrogi in London, Raissa Kasolowsky in Dubai, Dave Graham in Berlin and Alastair Lyon in Beirut; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Kevin Liffey