The US has foiled a plot by al--Qaeda’s branch in Yemen to blow up a US-bound passenger jet with a new take on the “underwear bomb” near the first anniversary of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death, officials said on Monday.
The FBI said investigators were examining the explosive that appeared to be a revamped model of the bomb used in the Christmas Day plot of 2009, in which a plastic explosive hidden in a Nigerian man’s underwear failed to detonate on a plane headed for Detroit, Michigan.
The plot hatched by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was uncovered at an early stage and at no point was the public in danger, the White House and government agencies said.
“The device was for use by a suicide bomber on an airliner,” a US counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity. “At no point were any airlines at risk.”
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plot was suspected to be targeting a passenger plane bound for the US.
“The plot itself indicates that the terrorists keep trying ... to devise more and more perverse and terrible ways to kill innocent people,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in New Delhi on the final day of a three-nation Asian tour. “It is a reminder as to why we have to remain vigilant at home and abroad in protecting our nation, and in protecting friendly nations and peoples like India and others.”
News of the plot was revealed just days after the one-year anniversary of the raid by US Navy commandos that killed bin Laden at his Pakistan hideout.
“I congratulate the CIA for thwarting this reported plot by AQAP to destroy a US-bound airliner using a specific type of bomb that is of new design and very difficult to detect by magnetometer,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
The FBI said the improvised explosive device was seized abroad and was “very similar to IEDs [improvised explosive devices] that have been used previously by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations.”
Like previous attempted AQAP attacks, the explosive was non-metallic to avoid detection, officials said.
“While similar, a preliminary review of this device shows that it has some significant differences from the device used in the Christmas Day attack. It is clear that AQAP is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the causes of the failure of the 2009 device,” the counterterrorism official said.
US President Barack Obama was briefed about the plot last month and was told by his deputies that lives were never in danger, said Caitlin Hayden, deputy spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
“While the president was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack,” she said in a statement.
AQAP has been linked to the 2009 Christmas plot and is also suspected of orchestrating a 2010 attempt to blow up cargo planes heading to the US with explosives concealed in printer cartridges.