WASHINGTON -- 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 first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The plot centered on an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. The new bomb was also designed to be hidden in a suicide bomber's underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said.
The FBI now has the bomb and is examining it to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device had no metal, meaning it probably could have passed through a metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters yesterday that she had been briefed about an "undetectable" device that was "going to be on a U.S.-bound airliner."
The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It was not immediately clear what happened to the suspect.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said President Barack Obama learned about the plot in April and was assured the device posed no threat to the public. "The president thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand," Hayden said.
The operation unfolded even as the White House and the Department of Homeland Security assured the American public that they knew of no al-Qaida plots against the United States around the anniversary of bin Laden's death. The operation was carried out over the past few weeks, officials said.
The AP 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 going on. Once officials said 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 was not clear who built the bomb, but, because of its sophistication and its similarity to the Christmas bomb, counterterrorism officials suspected it was the work of master bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri or one of his protégés. Al-Asiri constructed the first underwear bomb and two others that al-Qaida built into printer cartridges and shipped to the United States on cargo planes in 2010. Both of those bombs used a powerful industrial explosive. Both were nearly successful.