FBI experts are picking apart the sophisticated new al-Qaida bomb to discover if it was capable of getting past airport security and blowing up a commercial plane.
The unexploded bomb represents an intelligence prize, the result of a covert CIA operation in Yemen.
The device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
The device is an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system.
It’s not clear who built the bomb, but because of its sophistication and its similarity to the Christmas Day 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-Qaida built into printer cartridges and sent to the US on cargo planes in 2010.
Both of those bombs used a powerful industrial explosive. Both were nearly successful.
The new underwear bomb operation is a reminder of al-Qaida’s ambitions, despite the death of bin Laden and other senior leaders. 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.
On Monday, al-Qaida militants staged a surprise attack on a Yemeni army base in the south, killing 22 soldiers and capturing at least 25. The militants managed to reach the base both from the sea and by land, gunning down troops and making away with weapons and other military hardware after the blitz attack.
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-Qaida leader, was hit by a missile as he stepped out of his vehicle along with another operative in the southern Shabwa province of Yemen.
Al-Quso, 37, was on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a five million dollar reward for information leading to his capture. He was indicted in the US for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the harbour of Aden, Yemen, in which 17 American sailors were killed and 39 injured.
Al-Quso was believed to have replaced Anwar al-Awlaki as the group’s head of external operations. Al-Awlaki was killed in a US airstrike last year.