Police investigators arrive at the Russian embassy in Athens on Tuesday. Five parcel bombs sent to foreign embassies were found in Athens on Tuesday. One of them exploded with no one injured. Two of the bombs burst into flames. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: A US official confirmed yesterday that two packages addressed to Chicago-area addresses were seized in September.

Each contained literature and other materials and no explosives: they were sent in a dummy run to test how long parcel bombs would take to reach their destinations, and to try to estimate when the cargo planes would be flying over densely populated US cities.

On Friday, the real plot was activated, using real explosives carefully hidden in air freight.

One cardboard box bound for Chicago contained a copy of the Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, a pink and purple handicraft basket and an HP printer. The printer cartridge contained PETN — less than 400g — but enough to blow a hole in the hull of the 747 that had just landed at East Midland Airport from the UPS air cargo hub at Cologne-Bonn in Germany.

Two other stops

The UPS plane had two other stops on its planned route arcing high over the North Atlantic and down the eastern seaboard states — to Philadelphia, and then O'Hare in Chicago.

The cardboard box was in a metal cargo pallet, pre-sorted so its customers at a synagogue could track its location — if they knew it was coming. So too could its senders, an Al Qaida terror cell in Yemen, masterminded by Ebrahim Hassan Al Asiri.

But the German authorities also had a tip-off about what was on the plane. The Bundespolizei had received a call from the Saudis — likely from Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah, the Kingdom's intelligence agency — that there was a suspicious package going to the US.

The Saudis also phoned the British and the Americans to say the air cargo plot had been put into action. By the time the Bundespolizei processed the tip, the UPS plane had left Cologne-Bonn for Philadelphia. It was diverted to East Midlands airport. Accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs, British officials carried out a search but it yielded nothing. Even an HP printer and its cartridge was cleared.

The Saudis' source was good — Jabr Al Faifi, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who knew the mountainous region along the Saudi-Yemen border well — and knew Al Qaida even better, had turned himself in to Saudi security officials some weeks before.

After being released from a rehabilitation programme when he denounced Al Qaida, he quickly rejoined the terror network, becoming number 20 on the Saudi's most wanted list of 85 militants. Upon his surrender, he appears to have given the Saudis a wealth of accurate information on the network.

With dawn breaking over Leicestershire, the incident appeared to be over.

But Dubai Police called. They had just found a bomb after an extensive manual search: "Look for a printer and check the cartridge. And do it manually — scanners can't detect the well-hidden pentaerythritol tetranitrate".

But the Dubai bomb had left Sana'a on a Qatar Airways Airbus with a capacity of 144 passengers for Doha, and then onto Dubai on another of its fleet.

Pipeline destroyed

Yesterday, terrorists struck again, blowing up a pipeline in Southern Yemen. The plot has also caused widespread concerns and heightened security alerts across Europe.

Tensions were particularly high in Greece when a series of small packages exploded around Athens. One small device exploded at Switzerland's embassy and police detonated another at the Bulgarian embassy.

Nobody was hurt, and the packages are believed to the be work of domestic left-wing groups.