The would-be suicide bomber in a plot by al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate was planted in the group by an allied intelligence agency or turned into an informant early in the conspiracy, US officials said on Tuesday.
The CIA and its foreign partners tracked the plot for several weeks and then managed to get the informant to deliver the bomb outside Yemen, possibly to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, sources said.
US intelligence officials wanted to keep a lid on details of how the plot was uncovered to make sure the informant and the family was safe. Sources said the informant was believed to be connected to a foreign intelligence agency allied with the CIA.
The New York Times reported the would-be suicide bomber was an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia who volunteered for the mission to detonate the bomb aboard a US-bound airliner.
The plot was publicly revealed on Monday.
US and allied intelligence agencies in the past 10 days seized an explosive device that was an improved version of the “underwear bomb” in a failed Christmas Day 2009 airline bombing attempt over Detroit, Michigan, US officials said.
The plot to introduce the bomb aboard an aircraft was the work of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the group’s most dangerous offshoot, US officials said.
The latest device appeared to be similar to the work of fugitive Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who US sources believe is a bomb-maker working with AQAP. The FBI was studying the device to help prevent any future bombing attempts.
The US Transportation Security Administration “also will be able to examine the device to test whether or not it would have been detected, and make adjustments to improve the chances that similar devices would be detected,” Senator Susan Collins, senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee said in an e-mail.
There was no immediate sign the administration was ordering changes in aviation security procedures. The plot never came close to fruition and no aircraft was in danger, officials said.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emphasized the importance of security measures to air carriers and foreign government partners in guidance that reiterated and updated existing security guidelines and encouraged continued vigilance, a DHS official said.
Security steps taken since the failed 2009 attempt, in which a similar device was carried onto a plane by Nigerian militant Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “would have been able to prevent this device from bringing down an airplane,” the official said.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee, said the plot was a reminder of how committed AQAP was to attacking Americans.
“Once again we’ve seen they think we are vulnerable through the airways. That’s why we give such emphasis to the screening process,” he said.
Other US officials said airport metal detectors probably would have trouble spotting a device that had no metal parts.
However, airport body -scanners, which use light doses of radiation to scan through a passenger’s clothes, ought to be able to detect “anomalies” that could then be further examined in a hands-on, pat down search, they said.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, about 700 full-body scanners have been deployed at more than 180 airports in the US since 2007. However, there are about 450 airports that have federal security, according to the TSA.