A Saudi bomb-maker believed to be working with al-Qaeda’s -Yemen-based wing is a key suspect in the parcel bomb plot against the US, a US official said on Saturday.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who tops a Saudi Arabian terrorism list, is the brother of a suicide bomber killed in an attempt to kill Saudi counter-terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef last year.
That attack, as well as another attempt on a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day last year, involved the use of pentaerythritol -trinitrate (PETN) — a highly potent -explosive that appears to be the weapon of choice of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
At least one of the two US-bound parcel bombs sent from Yemen addressed to synagogues in Chicago and intercepted in Dubai and Britain on Friday employed PETN.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Asiri was being closely looked at by authorities in view of his experience with explosives.
There were also indications he may have been the bomb-maker behind the Christmas Day attempt and the failed attack on Prince Nayaf last year, the official added.
Saudi Arabia, which provided intelligence that helped identify the parcel bomb threat, put Asiri at the top of its terrorism list last year.
Authorities are scrambling to track down any AQAP operatives behind the latest plot. Yemeni police earlier on Saturday arrested a medical student believed to be in her 20s in Sanaa, but her lawyer said he feared she had been -unwittingly used by others.
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the parcel bombs sent from Yemen had the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, and in particular AQAP.
White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan has called AQAP “the most active operational franchise” of al-Qaeda outside its traditional Pakistani and Afghan base.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has been increasingly focused on the al-Qaeda wing, which authorities have said was behind the failed attempt to blow up a US jetliner on Christmas Day last year with a bomb that a Nigerian man hid in his underwear.
AQAP is headed by Nasser al-Wahayshi, a Yemeni former associate of Osama bin Laden, but it’s Anwar al-Awlaki, a US Islamist preacher of Yemeni ancestry, who is now drawing considerable attention in Washington.
Awlaki, who argues al-Qaeda’s extremist views using Western ideas and the Internet, has called the Christmas Day bomber one of his “students” and he traded e-mails with the US Army psychiatrist who went on a shooting rampage at a military base in Texas last year that killed 13 soldiers
US officials have said Washington has authorized the CIA to kill or capture Awlaki, a rare act against a US citizen that shows the degree of threat he is believed to pose.