San`a: A leading al Qaeda militant in Yemen who surrendered to Saudi Arabia last month provided the tip that led to the thwarting of the mail bomb plot, Yemeni security officials said on Monday.
The officials said Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi militant who had joined al Qaeda in Yemen, told Saudi officials about the plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press.
Several tribal leaders with knowledge of the situation, who similarly spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed al-Fayfi`s role.
US officials have said an alert from Saudi Arabia led to the interception on Friday of two explosive devices, hidden in packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, on planes transiting in Britain and Dubai. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group`s affiliate in Yemen, is suspected in the attempted bombing.
The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan on Monday cited Saudi security officials saying that the kingdom gave US investigators the tracking numbers of the packages.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that al-Fayfi had turned himself in. Al-Fayfi, who is in mid-30s, had been captured by US forces in Afghanistan following the 2001 toppling of the Taliban there. He was held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until early 2007, when he was released to Saudi Arabia.
There, he was put through the kingdom`s rehabilitation program for militants. But soon after his release from the program, he fled to neighbouring Yemen and joined al Qaeda there, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry. In September, he contacted Saudi authorities saying he wanted to turn himself in. A private jet was sent to the Yemeni capital San`a to retrieve him, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat at the time.
The Yemeni security officials said they suspect that the Saudis planted al-Fayfi in al-Qaeda in Yemen as a double agent.
Saudi security officials could not immediately be reached for comment whether al-Fayfi had a role in tipping them off to the mail bomb plot.
But al-Fayfi`s surrender may have revealed other plots as well. In mid-October, Saudi Arabia warned European authorities of a new terror threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, saying the group`s operatives were active on the continent, particularly in France.
Saudi Arabia has for years been working to infiltrate al Qaeda in its unstable neighbour to the south, Yemen. Saudi intelligence has recruited hundreds of informers in Yemen, gives powerful tribal chiefs generous stipends to ensure their loyalty and even passes out money within Yemen`s security forces.
The Saudis, who have fought a brutal war against al Qaeda militants at home over the past decade, have been unhappy about how President Ali Abdullah Saleh`s government in Yemen has handled the growing threat from al Qaeda in the poor Arab nation in their backyard. The kingdom sees Yemen`s security forces as incompetent and their intelligence gathering inadequate.
The frustration with the Yemenis climaxed last year when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came close to killing Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a royal who runs the Saudi counterterrorism program.
A suicide bomber posing as a reformed jihadist detonated a bomb hidden inside his body, cutting himself to shreds but only lightly injuring the prince.
"That was the thing that infuriated the Saudis and made them step up their intelligence operations in Yemen and almost completely sidestep the Yemenis," said a Yemeni security official familiar with the kingdom`s activity in his country.
"They recruited hundreds of informers and began to spend even more lavishly on their allies," said the official, who agreed to share the information in exchange for anonymity.