At the age of only 30, the al Qaeda bombmakerbehind the foiled plot on U.S-bound planes has emerged as the most feared face of terror for American authorities, a master technician with a fierce hatred for America and ingenious plans for hiding hard-to-detect bombs inside cameras, computers and even household pets.
Again and again, Ibrahim al-Asiri has created bombs that get past security screening — the underwear bomb targeting a Detroit-bound jet in 2009, bombs hidden in printer cartridges set to explode over Chicago, even a bomb hidden in the body of a younger brother who was sent on a suicide mission against a Saudi official.
A Saudi citizen who studied chemistry in college, al-Asiri’s parents say he became radicalized after the death of a brother.
“It makes him dangerous,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R.-Alabama, chair of House Homeland Security Committee, “and it’s clear that we want to make sure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to A, to continue to do, to build any device whatsoever, or impart his knowledge to anyone else who wants to build these devices.”
U.S. authorities tell ABC News that al-Asiri’s latest designs involve bombs surgically implanted in terrorists, as well as bombs hidden in pets to be carried on aircraft, cameras, and external hard drives that would explode when plugged into a laptop computer.
“[He’s] very innovative in trying to find some way to get a bomb onto an airplane that will evade detection from airport screeners,” explains Seth Jones, former senior advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Command and author of the just-published “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida since 9/11.”
The bombmaker’s hatred of the U.S. adds to the threat. “Ibrahim al-Asiri absolutely hates the United States,” said Jones. “[He]hates what the U.S. culture has brought to the world. [He]’s a violent supporter of the ideology of Osama bin Laden and has tried desperately, as hard as he can, to put a bomb together that will detonate and kill as many American as he can. He hates American ideology. He hates Western values.”
Jones said that al-Asiri is also “operationally very savvy.” According to Jones, he not only designed and built the device that with which underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down Northwest flight 253, he was also worked with AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki on how to preserve the bomb and how to detonate it for maximum effect. Said Jones, “In other words he’s not just building the material himself, he’s interested in working with the operatives so that they can actually detonate it and kill as many Americans as possible.”
Because of the threat of al-Asiri and his al Qaeda group, AQAP, the United States has vastly expanded its drone operations in Yemen, with the U.S. military and the CIA given the freedom to operate in large zones.
Al-Asiri has survived at least one US drone strike in the last year.
While al-Asiri and al Qaeda’s latest plot was foiled by a double agent working for U.S. and allied intelligence agencies, authorities tell ABC News there are several other plots aimed at US airlines that are at the least in the planning stages if not further along.
Tonight, the FBI continues to pore over the latest al-Asiri bomb that the double agent was able to bring out of Yemen, but at airport across the country security officials say they have yet to be briefed or receive any concrete guidance about the details of the bomb or what steps need to be taken to guard against it.
Al Asiri’s twisted genius means the threat from al Qaeda remains very real and active. But even if he were to be killed by a drone strike, said Jones, the threat would not disappear.
“Taking out al-Asiri would take out the most competent bomb maker in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said. “But as we’ve seen in Pakistan with senior al Qaeda leaders, they can replace these individuals. It may not be with somebody as technically savvy for the moment, but just taking somebody out does not mean that the problem goes away. They have other bomb experts, so they will try again.”