May 8th, 2012
03:16 PM ET

Bomb chief al-Asiri considered one of al Qaeda’s biggest threats

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."

February 2012: More on al-Asiri

May 2010: More on the evolution of al Qaeda's bomb makers

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. David in Tampa

    Ya might wanna make sure you shorts are clean Ibrahim al-Asiri, Cuz you are gonna meet God very soon vial a hell-fire missile. Tell your mom, your grandma and the kids that they should go live in the desert for a while.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2011cnn2011

      this guy will be droned soon...they know where he is...:)

      May 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Dan

    A muslim? I never would have guessed.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bobcat (in a hat) ©

    I think al-Asiri ought to self test those bombs just to make sure they work before he puts them on other people.

    May 8, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • DJS

      He put one on his brother who went *boom*...he'll get there eventually.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. saywhat

    That 'device' was handed over to us by an Al-Qaeda operative who now turns out to be a CIA informer and we were all led to believe that he was the 'bomber'.
    So where was that 'device' manufactured' really?
    A hoax to get the public angst up ??

    May 9, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. capnmike

    This bomb-building pig needs to be eliminated, but more importantly the "mullahs" or "Imams" or whichever religious nuts that are inciting people to this hatred and violence need to be removed...they are the ones conning and hoodwinking ignorant or emotionally needy youths into carrying bombs and murdering innocent people, to serve their own filthy purposes. We should be concentrating on the source.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zini

      capnmike

      It is really ironic that you say that we should be concentrating more on the source that helps radicalize these people, when the source is the nation that helped us foil this plot to begin with (SAUDI ARABIA). In Saudi Arabia they teach a strict fundamentalist version of Islam called Wahhabism. Wahhabis are very extreme in their views. In Saudi Arabia many Wahhabi clerics preach hatred against the west, Christians, and Jews. So it is not a big surprise that many of these Al Qaeda guys in Yemen are of Saudi origin. However the U.S. seems to turn a blind eye to this issue as Saudi Arabia is a major oil producer.

      May 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Thinkfouryourself

    The following ratios were compiled using data from 2004 National Safety Council Estimates, a report based on data from The National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, 2003 mortality data from the Center for Disease Control was used.
    – You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack
    – You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack
    – You are 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane
    – You are 1048 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack
    –You are 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack
    – You are 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack
    – You are 13 times more likely to die in a railway accident than from a terrorist attack
    –You are 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed than from a terrorist attack
    –You are 9 times more likely to choke to death on your own vomit than die in a terrorist attack
    –You are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist
    –You are 8 times more likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack
    – You are 6 times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack

    May 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2011cnn2011

      which goes to show you that the impact of terrorists is pretty much null and void

      May 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. gbuk01

    I have real problems with items of news like this. My problem arises due to who has been the greatest threat to human life throughout the recent ‘terrorist’ activities? If we take 9/11 for example, lives lost in 9/11: 2996, number of USA personnel lost in the counter activities in Iraq and Afghanistan: 5986. Similarly, the UK, number of lives lost in 7/11: 52, number of UK personnel lost in the counter activities in Iraq and Afghanistan: 591. Considering Iraq, the USA have still got around 8000 personnel in the country and have control, in certain areas, of their society, but what is the UK getting? Afghanistan is even more concerning, in that we appear to be on the brink of withdrawing with no resolution of the situation. Both countries seem to be happy to pay a far higher price in lives than the initial terrorist attacks with little successful outcome. So, whilst we are defending our rights of freedom we are paying a far higher price than the terrorists are causing us.

    May 10, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. MazeAndBlue

    This is why the we must stay the course. DUCK!!!!

    May 10, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ishtar666

    Come on. A bomb in the mail ... REALLY?! I mean are they that stupid?!

    May 10, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ishtar666

    is it 1978?

    May 10, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |