- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
On Monday, the AP broke the story that the CIA had disrupted a plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner with a similar explosive to the one used by the notorious "underwear bomber" in 2010. We know that like that failed bombing attempt, the plot was likely tied to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that the bomb bore the signature of master bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. But beyond that, the accounts seem to differ on what exactly happened. Here’s the AP’s version:
The CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press has learned.[…]
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’s not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.
But according to the L.A. Times, there was no evidence that U.S.-bound airliners had been targeted:
U.S. officials said Monday that no one was captured by U.S. agencies as part of the operation. The officials emphasized that they found no sign of an active plot to use the new bomb design against U.S. aviation or U.S.-bound jetliners.
The device was given to the CIA by a government outside Yemen, officials said. The White House said President Obama was informed of the discovery in April by John Brennan, his top counter-terrorism advisor, and was assured it "did not pose a threat to the public."
The New York Times version makes it sound as if the plot was much further along:
The intelligence services detected the scheme as it took shape in mid-April, officials said, and the explosive device was seized in the Middle East outside Yemen about a week ago before it could be deployed.
It appeared that Qaeda leaders had dispatched a suicide bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States with the device under his clothes, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport. Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said counterterrorism officials had said of the bomber: “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.” He is alive, officials said, but they would not to say whether he was in foreign custody.
And according to an ABC news report today, the device was given to U.S. officials not by a foreign government but by an "inside source who secretly worked for the CIA and several other intelligence agencies" and brought the device to Saudi Arabia.
As all the accounts note, officials say the plot was not connected to the anniversary of the Osama Bin Laden’s death and therefore does not contradict earlier statements made by officials that they were aware of no active plots connected to the anniversary. White House counterterrorism John Brennan went a step further on ABC News’s "Good Morning America" today, saying that the plot was not itself an "active threat." The Department of Homeland Security was also quoted in the Times saying yesterday saying it was aware of “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time."
From all indications, this isn’t a case like the series of recent domestic "terror plots" in the United States that were encouraged and pushed along by FBI informants. There was a real bomb made by a real bombmaker and, according to the Times at least, instructions from al Qaeda leaders on using it. I think some clarity on what an "active" plot is would probably help, though.
Update: A new L.A. Times article provides some clarity:
Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, working closely with the CIA, used an informant to pose as a would-be suicide bomber. His job was to convince the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen to give him a new kind of non-metallic bomb that the militants were designing to easily pass through airport security.
But the double agent instead arranged to deliver the explosive device to U.S. and other intelligence authorities waiting in another country, officials said Tuesday. The agent is now safely outside Yemen and is being debriefed.
According to the article, the same operation provided the intelligence that led to the drone strike that killed AQAP operative Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso on Sunday. This would definitely clear up the "active plot" question.