US officials announced yesterday that the CIA had foiled a major bomb plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula against the United States which had been apparently timed for the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, May 2.
The thwarted plot, which involved a suicide bomber wearing an underwear bomb on an airliner bound for the US, was disrupted within the past 10 days when US authorities seized the device, according to Reuters. It is unclear whether the would-be bomber has been detained or is still at large. The bomber was apparently based in Yemen, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
In announcing the foiling of the attack, the Obama administration stated that because the plot had been discovered at an early stage, it never presented a danger to the public. The president had been made aware of the plot in April. On April 26 and May 1, the US government issued statements saying that it had no credible information about specific terrorist plots that were timed to coincide with the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.
US officials said that infiltration by a “Yemen insider” led to the breakup of the plot, according to the BBC. Other intelligence agencies aided the CIA in the seizure of the bomb device, which is currently being examined by the FBI. The Yemeni source has apparently been moved to a safe location out of the country.
The bomb itself is reported to be a more sophisticated version of the underwear bomb devised by master AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri for the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner plot. According to Reuters, a US official said the latest bomb reflected an improved capacity for detonation, and was probably the work of Asiri. And like previous bombs developed by him, it is non-metallic, so less detectable by airport scanners. A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that it is also possible the bomb was made by one of Asiri’s “students.”
The recent airliner bomb plot has surfaced as the US is increasingly turning its attention to Yemen and al Qaeda’s affiliate there, AQAP. Over the past year, AQAP has gained control of vast areas of southern Yemen. In an attempt to counter the growing strength of the al Qaeda affiliate, the US has ramped up drone and conventional airstrikes in Yemen, with 14 confirmed strikes already this year compared to 10 strikes in all of 2011. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2012.]
Two days ago, the US killed senior al Qaeda operative Fahd al Quso in a drone strike in Shabwa province. Quso was wanted for his role in the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline plot as well as the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and he led a terror cell in Yemen. US Representative Peter King said the strike that killed Quso was part of the same operation that foiled the latest underwear bomb plot, the BBC reported.
US and European officials are currently on the lookout for other AQAP bombs that may have as yet escaped detection, according to ABC. It was reported last week that increasing numbers of air marshals have been deployed to protect US-bound flights originating from Europe. Security officials are also concerned that terrorist bombmakers may resort to internal bombs, which are surgically implanted in suicide bombers. Asiri developed a similar bomb used in February 2009 against a Saudi official.
Senior AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri remains at large. He was thought to have been killed in the September 2011 US drone strike that killed senior AQAP ideologue Anwar al Awlaki, but Asiri was subsequently reported to be alive.