Al-Qa'ida defector 'blew the whistle on explosives plot'

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An al-Qa'ida member and former detainee at Guantanamo Bay provided the key information which led to the discovery of the two bombs which could have brought down airliners, according to authorities in the Yemen.

Saudi militant and Afghan war veteran Jabir al-Fayfi, who joined up with Islamist groups in Yemen after being freed from Guantanamo and returned to his homeland, is said to have been instrumental in foiling the attacks.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi intelligence, had been credited with issuing the first alert over the plot when he telephoned President Obama's chief terrorism adviser, John Brennan, an ex-CIA station chief in Riyadh, last Thursday.

Security officials say he acted after meetings with Fayfi, who had defected back to Saudi Arabia and warned that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who had built up a reputation as a leading bombmaker, had been involved in an impending operation.

According to Yemeni officials, the Saudis became convinced that up to 15 mail bombs had been manufactured by Asiri and his associates, which has led to repeated warnings by US officials that the search for suspect packages must continue.

The exact role of Fayfi in the affair remains unclear, but his history does reveal a long association with Islamist insurgency. He was captured by US forces in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and spent the following six years at Guantanamo, before being returned to Saudi Arabia in an agreement between Washington and Riyadh.

Along with others in the same situation, Fayfi was put through a rehabilitation programme for militants run by the kingdom. Soon after completing the course, however, he fled across the border into Yemen where he joined the group Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula – one of a number of former Guantanamo Bay prisoner to do so.

However, his true allegiance remains a mystery, with some Yemeni officials insisting that he had been sent as an agent by Saudis to gather intelligence on al-Qa'ida. According to Saudi authorities he made contact two months ago to recant and expressed a desire to return home. A private jet was sent to the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, to retrieve him, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat at the time. Soon afterwards, Saudi intelligence was able to send a steady stream of intelligence to the west about projected al-Qa'ida attacks. This included a warning to French authorities about a possible bombing in Paris, as well as information to Germany and the UK.

At the same time there had been a series of raids inside Saudi Arabia, in which a number of terrorist suspects had been arrested.

The Saudi government has refused to comment on the claims about Fayfi, but Riyadh has become increasingly concerned about al-Qa'ida activity in Yemen which had spilled into the kingdom.

Many of the leading Islamist militants in Yemen are of Saudi origin, including the 28-year-old explosives expert Asiri, who is said to have provided the bomb carried by the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner. He also produced an explosive device which his brother used in an attempted assassination of Prince Mohammed.

Like Fayfi, the brother of Asiri had claimed to have seen the error of his ways and wanted to change sides. A meeting was arranged with Prince Mohammed, during which he detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum, killing himself and a number of the Prince's bodyguards.

German authorities announced yesterday that the devices contained 300 grams (10.58oz) and 400 grams of the explosive PETN respectively. One of the packages passed through Germany's Cologne airport and arrived at East Midlands airport, where police failed to find it for several hours, despite being given detailed information.