CIA thwarts al Qaeda airline bomb plot on bin Laden anniversary

The CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a US-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jet over Detroit on Dec 25, 2009.

This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al Qaeda developed a more refined detonation system, US officials said.

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see if it could have passed through airport security and brought down a plane.

Officials said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. It was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It is not clear what happened to the alleged bomber.

The operation unfolded even as the White House and the Homeland Security assured the American public they knew of no al Qaeda plots against the US around the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.

The Associated Press learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.

Once those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot yesterday, despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement today.

It is not clear who built the bomb but, because of its sophistication and its similarity to the Detroit bomb, authorities suspected it was the work of master bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Al-Asiri constructed the first underwear bomb and two others that al Qaeda built into printer cartridges and shipped to the US on cargo planes in 2010. Both were nearly successful.

The operation is an intelligence victory for the US and a reminder of al Qaeda’s ambitions.

Because of instability in the Yemeni government, the terrorist group’s branch there has gained territory and strength. It has set up terrorist camps and, in some areas, even operates as a de facto government.

But along with the gains there also have been losses. The group has suffered significant setbacks as the CIA and the US military focus more on Yemen.

On Sunday, Fahd al-Quso, a senior al Qaeda leader, was hit by a missile in Yemen. He was on the FBI’s most wanted list and indicted for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox