The recent seizure by U.S. and other intelligence agents of an explosive device designed to be secretly carried aboard an airliner by a suicide bomber has put one of al Qaeda's master bomb-makers back into an international spotlight.
U.S. officials haven’t said whether they believe Ibrahim al-Asiri – the chief bomb-maker for Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - built the device, which they say was recovered two weeks ago after a tip from Saudi Arabia.
But U.S. officials say the group is responsible, and that the device is an evolution of the bomb that was used in a failed attack on a Christmas Day 2009 flight to Detroit – a bomb that U.S. officials believe al-Asiri built.
It’s not clear how the most recent bomb differed from the so-called underwear bomber's apparatus in that 2009 incident. A U.S. official said that like the earlier device, it was “non-metallic” and therefore harder for airport security scanners to detect. But it’s “clear that AQAP is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the cases of the failure of the 2009 device,” the official said.
Regardless of whether al-Asiri made the latest bomb, U.S. intelligence officials believe he’s one of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's most dangerous operatives. They believe the device comes from the group, and that al-Asiri has been involved in at least three of the group's international bomb plots: a failed 2009 attempt to kill Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef; the failed 2009 Christmas airplane bombing; and a foiled 2010 attempt to send printer bombs to the United States aboard cargo planes.
“He’s the most dangerous person in this group which poses some kind of threat to the United States,” CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen said Monday.
Though al-Asiri, 30, is a shadowy figure, CNN pieced together details of his journey to jihad for a story published in February. The account is based in part on a detailed briefing on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that Saudi counter-terrorism officials provided late last year to Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defense studies at the Gulf Research Center.
Al-Asiri was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 18, 1982. His father served as an officer in the Saudi military, and according to interviews the family later gave the Saudi newspaper Watan, nothing about the upbringing of Ibrahim and his brother Abdullah – who authorities said killed himself in the 2009 attempt on bin Nayef’s life - marked them for jihad.
"They were not religious boys at the time. They used to listen to music and had a wide variety of friends, friends not like the ones they had later when they became more religious," their mother told Watan.
One of their sisters told the newspaper that the death of their brother Ali in a car accident in 2000 was a turning point in Ibrahim and Abdullah's attitude.
"It was after that that they started swapping video tapes and cassettes on the Mujahedeen in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and they became at times distant," the sister said. "Abdullah started to go out a lot with his new friends to camps known as 'preaching camps.'"
Ibrahim Al-Asiri began studying chemistry at King Saud University in Riyadh but dropped out after only two years, according to Alani. Though he would acquire bomb-making expertise later on, those studies would lay a foundation for his future terrorist career.
Al-Asiri at one point was arrested in 2003 while trying, with others, to enter Iraq to wage jihad, his family told Watan. He was held in prison for nine months.
When he was released, al-Asiri - who became known as Abu Salah in militant circles - attempted to create a new militant cell inside Saudi Arabia, linked to al Qaeda, that planned to bomb oil pipelines in the country, according to information released when he was designated a terrorist by U.S. and United Nations authorities. When police swooped in on their meeting place in northern Riyadh, six members of his cell were killed in a shootout, but he and his brother were not there. They were not then viewed by Saudi authorities as key members of the Saudi wing of al Qaeda, according to Alani.
In 2007, al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia instructed its operatives to move to Yemen, Alani said. Al Qaeda’s Yemen operations had been given a new life after several of its leaders had escaped from prison the previous year. Al-Asiri, then on the run, called his father to tell him he was leaving the country but did not reveal where he was heading. Saudi counter-terrorism officials were eavesdropping on the call.
The brothers crossed the border into Yemen, where Saudi counter-terrorism officials believe that al-Asiri developed his bomb-making expertise. Alani said there are indications he was tutored by a Pakistani bomb-maker linked to the group.
By the summer of 2009, Ibrahim al-Asiri was one of several Saudis in the inner circle of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2009, al-Asiri fitted his brother Abdullah with a PETN-based underwear bomb to kill bin Nayef, a top Saudi security official. The device killed his brother instantly but failed to kill its target.
PETN - a white, odorless powder than cannot be detected by most X-ray machines –- was a key ingredient in what U.S. officials believe was Ibrahim al-Asiri’s next plot: the 2009 Christmas bombing attempt aboard Northwest flight 253.
According to U.S. authorities, the device was hidden in the underwear of a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who wore it as he boarded the Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam. A specially sewn pouch in AbdulMutallab's underwear contained the main PETN explosive charge, which was connected to a detonator. The initiation for the device was a syringe in his underwear filled with potassium permanganate and ethylene glycol.
As Northwest 253 made its final approach to Detroit, AbdulMutallab –- who was later convicted in the United States - plunged the syringe, mixing the two chemicals and setting them afire. According to the prosecution, this flame set off the detonator, but the PETN main charge was not detonated. Instead, some of it started burning, creating a fireball on AbdulMutallab's lap.
An explosives expert says that a likely explanation for the failure of the underwear device to fully detonate was the wear and tear it suffered during AbdulMutallab's lengthy transit through Africa.
U.S. officials believe al-Asiri’s next devices were the 2010 bombs, which were found hidden inside laser printers after a last-minute intelligence tip from Saudi Arabia. The printers were dropped off at FedEx and UPS offices in Sanaa, Yemen. Four hundred grams of PETN were inside the ink cartridges.
They passed through airport security undetected and were then loaded onto the first leg of their journey toward the United States. Only an intelligence tip to Saudi authorities allowed authorities in Dubai and the United Kingdom to eventually intercept the deadly cargo.
The explosives had been concealed so well that bomb disposal teams at both locations initially believed the printers were not bombs. It was the most sophisticated al Qaeda device that Western counter-terrorism officials had ever seen, and they said it had the potential to bring down a plane.
Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism service believes that al-Asiri has trained several apprentices in how to make sophisticated PETN-based bombs.
"They understand that Asiri is going to be killed or captured one day," said Alani, of the Gulf Research Center. "We're talking about a new generation of very skillful bomb-builders and very committed people."