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( Based on open source information )

Q.What materials for assembling an improvised explosive device (IED) have been recovered by the authorities of the Dubai airport and the East Midlands airport of the UK from the cargo planes of the FedExpress and the UPS respectively which were searched on a reported tip-off from the Saudi security agencies?

A.Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) - an explosive favoured by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). PETN belongs to the same chemical family as nitroglycerin. Explosives experts have been quoted by the media as saying that six grams of PETN are enough to blow a hole in the fuselage of an aircraft. The AQAP had used the same explosive in its failed attempt to have an American North-West Airlines plane bound for Detroit in the US blown up on Christmas Day last year through a Nigerian student Abdul Mutallab. That attempt had failed because an alert passenger intervened and overpowered the Nigerian before he could cause the explosion. The CNN affiliate ITN has quoted Col. Richard Kemp, former Chairman of the UK’s COBRA intelligence group, as saying that ‘the quantity of PETN in these devices was about five times the volume used at Christmas.” Abdul Mutallab was alleged to have been carrying about 80 grams of PETN.
The Dubai Police told WAM, the local official news agency, that the explosive materials were "professionally" loaded and connected using an electric circuit to a mobile phone chip tucked in a printer cartridge. According to the CNN, the device was packed in a toner cartridge of a laser printer and designed to be detonated by a cell phone. The package found at the East Midlands Airport contained a "manipulated" toner cartridge and had white powder on it as well as wires and a circuit board. The media has quoted a source associated with the investigationas saying that the detonating substance was Lead Azide, a standard substance in detonations.

The CNN quoted Olivier Clerc, described by it as a hardware application engineering manager for a large U.S.-based cell phone parts manufacturer, as saying as follows on the basis of a study of the images of the neutralized IED carried by the media: “ The electronic component visible in a law enforcement image of an intercepted suspicious shipment from Yemen appears to be a printed circuit board from a disassembled cell phone. This size and the shape of the PCB (printed circuit board) are typical to a handset cell phone type device. The component on the top right part of the device seems to be a digital camera sensor. The area with a rectangular grey material [held] a display that was removed. On the left of the device, under the two metallic shield cans are most likely the baseband processor or the display controller. A baseband processor is critical to the function of a digital cell phone. There is as well a coin type cell (which) is a backup battery, and 2 Board to board connectors. On one of these connectors is plugged a keypad that was as well removed. Another metallic component on the top left of the electronic board (partly hidden under a screw) seems to be a small vibration component, used on cell phones (when vibrate mode is enabled). So this board is very likely to be the main electronic board of a cell phone device."

The CNN further added: “A Google search for the numbered markings on the printed circuit board produced several links to the Bird D736 mobile phone. The D736 is a similar shape to the circuit board. The D736 is a Chinese-brand GSM two-band phone that allows the unit to work in most countries in the world, including the United States. Clerc cautioned, however, that "it was not obvious that this board is the D736 phone." In the law enforcement photo, the cell phone circuit board is crudely mounted with screws, metal and plastic fragments to what appears to be a stout metal case. Wires lead from the circuit board out of the frame. Sources familiar with the investigation tell CNN that the suspicious shipments from Yemen contained computer printers. The metal case on which the circuit board is mounted would be consistent with the frame of a laser printer.” ( My comment: It is not clear whether the printer cartridge modified to conceal an IED was dispatched alone to the synagogues or whether it was in a printer in a consignment of printers sent to the synagogues. Was or were the printers ordered from Yemen or Dubai by the synagogues? If so, was the cartridge of one of the printers in the consignment modified to conceal an IED? Answers to these questions are not available )

Q.Were the IEDs designed to explode mid-air or on reaching the two synagogues in Chicago to which the packages were addressed?

A.There are contradictory versions in answer to this question. According to the British Prime Minister David Cameron as quoted by the BBC: "We believe the device was designed to go off on the aeroplane. We cannot be sure about the timing when that was meant to take place. There is no early evidence that that was meant to take place over British soil, but of course we cannot rule it out." According to the CNN: ”Officials weren't certain whether those behind the plot, who likely would have used cell phones to trigger the devices, wanted to detonate them while the planes were in the air or at their destinations, two synagogues in Chicago, Illinois.” CNN reported that UK Home Secretary Theresa May said authorities do not believe the perpetrators would have known the location of the device had they detonated it.

Q.Are there previous instances of planes being blown-up mid-air using mobile phones?

A.On August 24, 2004, there were two explosions on board two aircraft which had taken off from a Moscow airport which led to the disintegration of the planes and the death of 90 persons, including all the passengers and the members of the crew. The Russian authorities claimed to have established that two Chechen women from Grozny had a role in the explosions. It was suspected that they had checked in their baggage containing IEDs with mobile phones as triggers and traveled by the flight and that the IEDs were activated after the planes had taken off by sending mobile signals. Please see my article of September 6,2004, titled TERRORISM: THE RUSSIAN ORDEAL at

Q.What has been the progress of the investigation so far?

A.According to the BBC, security forces in Yemen have arrested a female medical student suspected of posting bombs found on two cargo jets in Dubai and the UK. She was held at a house in the capital, Sanaa, after being traced through a phone number left with a cargo company. According to the AFP news agency, the unnamed young Yemeni woman, described as a medical student and the daughter of a petroleum engineer, was arrested at a house on the outskirts of Sanaa. Her mother was also detained but was not a prime suspect, the arrested woman's lawyer said. ( My comments: It is possible she was used as an unconscious cut-out by the AQAP. If she was a conscious cut-out who was aware of the nature of the contents, she might not have left her correct telephone number with the courier company )

Q.Any additional security precautions required for the forthcoming visit of President Barack Obama to India the coming week?

  • Trace all packages that might have been received in India from Yemen in recent weeks and have them examined. Question their recipients.
  • Suspend all parcel movements from Yemen till the visit is over.
  • Suspend all flights from Yemen to India till the visit is over.
  • Step up surveillance of Yemeni and Nigerian nationals studying in India .
  • Strengthen physical security for all Jewish establishments in India. If Obama plans to visit the Jewish establishment in Mumbai which was attacked by the Lashkar-e-Toiba during the 26/11 terrorist strikes, strengthen physical security for it. ( 31-10-10)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )


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