PARIS (AFP) – British anti-terror police disarmed an Al-Qaeda bomb just 17 minutes before it was due to detonate, France said Thursday, after the explosives were intercepted on their way from Yemen to the United States.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said one of two parcel bombs found last week at airports in Dubai and Britain was on the point of exploding, and officials in his office told AFP he was referring to the British package.
“There were parcel bombs from Yemen heading for the United States, and I can tell you, for example, that one of these parcels was disarmed 17 minutes before the planned explosion,” Hortefeux told France 2 television.
The minister made the remark during a more general discussion of the threat of militant attacks on France and was not pressed for more information. He did not say where he had obtained his information about the imminent blast.
But Britain’s transport minister Philip Hammond told The Times newspaper that he had “no indication that that was the intended timing” of the parcel bomb discovered in Britain.
The British interior ministry and London’s Metropolitan Police said they would not comment on operational matters.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he could not yet confirm or deny the French claim.
“The two packages are in the hands of the British and the Emiratis. Their investigators are looking into all features of these improvised explosive devices, including when they were going to detonate,” he said.
“The forensics work on this is going to take some time. It’s going to be tedious. It’s very meticulous,” he added. The CIA refused to comment.
If Hortefeux’s report is correct, it would support the theory advanced by some security experts that the bombs were designed to destroy the planes in flight and not to strike the US targets to which they were addressed.
Last week, packages addressed to synagogues in Chicago containing the hard-to-detect explosive PETN hidden in printer ink cartridges were uncovered in Dubai and Britain’s East Midlands Airport, sparking a global scare.
Washington believes the parcel bombs were the work of Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a suspected Al-Qaeda bombmaker, and British officials have said they were powerful enough to bring down a plane in flight.
Hassan al-Asiri is thought to be a senior member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based subsidiary of September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden’s global Islamist militant network.
The group AQAP is thought to be behind a number of recent attacks, including last year’s Christmas Day “underpants bomb” scare, in which a Nigerian student smuggled a PETN-based device onto a US-bound flight.
The device failed to fully explode, and the plane landed safely.
On Wednesday, a British court jailed 21-year-old student Roshonara Choudhry for life after she stabbed and tried to kill a former government minister after listening to AQAP online propaganda.
Prosecutors said Choudhry had been radicalised by the messages of Yemeni-US cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Yemeni authorities say is a leading AQAP figure.
The British government has announced an urgent review of air freight security in the wake of the plot. It has also ordered the suspension of all air freight from Yemen and unaccompanied air freight from Somalia.
Britain’s interior minister Theresa May said in a speech on Wednesday that the bomb was “deeply concealed” in a printer cartridge and connected to a hidden power source in sections of a mobile telephone.
“The specifics of this attack — notably the type of device and how it was concealed — were new to us,” but the principle was similar to the device that destroyed a Pan Am jumbo flight over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, she said.
“It could have destroyed the aircraft on which it was being carried, over the UK, over the US or on the ground,” she said.
German officials said the two bombs found in Britain and Dubai contained between 300 and 400 grammes of PETN apiece. The explosive is hard to detect and easy to pack into seemingly innocuous devices.