Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Most Dangerous Man Is Still Alive
A U.S. drone strike killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi. But the real threat is AQAP’s elusive master bomb-maker.
The CIA drone strike that killed the head of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate took out a militant Washington has been hunting for years. An even more elusive and dangerous member of the group remains at large, however: the master bomb-maker who almost blew up an American airliner and poses what U.S. intelligence officials see as a genuine threat to successfully down one in the future.
In a rambling 10-minute video Tuesday, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirmed that its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, died in an American strike last week. A spokesman for the group, Khaled Saeed Batarfi, praised Wuhayshi as a “brave commander” and promised to take revenge. “To the caretaker of disbelief, America, Allah has left for you those who shall blacken your faces, embitter your living, and make you taste the bitterness of the war and taste of defeat,” Miqdad said, according to a translation from the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadi social media.
Militant groups routinely release defiant statements after a top leader is killed, but the group may have more reason than most for its confidence about one day carrying out a successful strike against the United States. Wuhayshi commanded the group, but he didn’t actually build the sophisticated nonmetallic explosives that keep Western counterterrorism officials awake at night. Those bombs, carefully designed to evade detection by metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, have instead been assembled by a shadowy former Saudi chemist named Ibrahim al-Asiri. And a U.S. official said Tuesday that Asiri, despite multiple U.S. attempts to kill him, is thought to still be very much alive.
“Asiri and his skills remain a key strength of the group,” said Michael Morell, a former acting director of the CIA. When asked about Asiri’s technical expertise as a bomb-maker, Morell had a blunt answer: “He is the best.”
Bruce Riedel, a former high-level CIA official, said Asiri presented a significant threat to the United States because the longer he remained operational, the more militants he could train in the fine art of building explosive devices capable of evading Western screening technologies.
“Asiri is a danger not just because of his skills, but because he has educated a cadre of bomb-makers to be his legacy,” Riedel said.
The White House has trumpeted Wuhayshi’s death as a significant accomplishment, with National Security Council spokesman Ned Price saying Tuesday that it “strikes a major blow to AQAP” and to al Qaeda more broadly. The CIA strike, Price added, “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
Both Morell and Riedel question that assertion, arguing that AQAP may actually be more dangerous than ever before because it has been able to take advantage of the violence and political instability wracking its home base of Yemen. The United States yanked most of its intelligence and Special Operations personnel out of Yemen earlier this year after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels captured the capital of Sanaa and broad swaths of the country. Saudi Arabia has mounted a broad air campaign to dislodge the group, but it has so far notched few tangible victories.
“AQAP is stronger today than ever, even without Wuhayshi, because of the chaos in Yemen,” Riedel said. “It has a very dangerous stronghold now in the far east of the country.”
The threat posed by the group stems, in large part, from Asiri’s continued ability to evade the combined might of the CIA and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command and continue his work.
Asiri has been on Western radar screens since 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian militant with ties to AQAP, tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit using an underwear bomb the Saudi designed and built. The device — which consisted of a packet of explosive powder that was designed to detonate after being injected with a syringe of acid — malfunctioned, but American officials were startled by the fact that Abdulmutallab made it through multiple layers of airport security without anyone spotting the explosives.
American intelligence officials say that Asiri also built a pair of bombs that made their way onto a cargo plane bound for the United States but were intercepted in Britain and Dubai. The Western officials who conducted a forensic examination of the devices found that each of the explosives — addressed to Jewish organizations in Chicago — had been hidden inside the ink cartridges of a boxed Hewlett-Packard printer to ensure they could make it onto the plane without being detected.
Asiri was born into a military family in Riyadh in the early 1980s. Trained as a chemist, he was jailed by Saudi authorities after attempting to make his way into Iraq to fight U.S. troops there.
According to a profile by the BBC, that experience marked a turning point in Asiri’s evolution into a full-blown Islamist militant.
“They put me in prison, and I began to see the depths of [the Saudi] servitude to the Crusaders and their hatred for the true worshipers of God, from the way they interrogated me,” Asiri told an al Qaeda-produced magazine in September 2009.
His radicalism had become grimly clear by the time the interview was released: One month earlier, Abdullah Asiri tried to assassinate a senior Saudi official using a bomb — designed by his older brother Ibrahim — that had been hidden in his rectum. The intended target was Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then the kingdom’s deputy interior minister. The resulting blast cut the younger Asiri in half, but Prince Nayef escaped with only minor injuries. In an early sign of Asiri’s skills, the bomb was set off by a chemical fuse designed to be invisible to a metal detector.
The United States has been unsuccessfully trying to kill Asiri for years, and repeated reports of his death have proved to be greatly exaggerated. In 2011, unnamed American officials wrongly told the Associated Press that Asiri died in the drone strike that killed al Qaeda propagandist — and U.S. citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki. In 2014, a senior Yemeni official told CNN that Asiri had been killed in a firefight with Yemeni commandos, a report that also proved false.
In the meantime, Asiri’s skills have continued to improve. In July 2013, then-Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole gave an unusually detailed description of an Asiri-designed underwear bomb that was part of a plot to take down an American passenger plane on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. The plot was foiled with the help of an AQAP informant, and the bomb was later obtained and studied by the CIA.
The device, Pistole told a crowd at the Aspen Security Forum, had been carefully designed to make its way past standard security measures like metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. The bomb used a “double initiation system” to mix the liquid explosives it contained and was coated in household caulk to mask its scent and prevent any vapors from escaping. Pistole called it “Underwear 2” — a nod to the failed 2009 attack.
“All of our explosive detection equipment … wasn’t calibrated to detect that,” he said. “And all of our 800 bomb-sniffing dogs had not been trained for that specific type.”
Photo credit: Associated Press