Al-Qaida Airline Plot Wasn't A Public Threat

The White House and FBI have confirmed al-Qaida attempted to target a plane bound for the United States. All indications are the plan was conceived by al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. But officials say the plot was foiled before it was any threat to the public.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are reporting this morning on another al-Qaida attempt to target a plane bound for the United States. The White House and the FBI confirmed the plot yesterday, and all indications are it was conceived by al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, a group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. But officials say the plot was foiled before it was any threat to the public.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story and joins us on the line. And Dina, it sounds like U.S. officials were on top of this very early. What do we know at this point?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, we know that the U.S. is working with some overseas intelligence agencies and that they discovered that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula allegedly had a bomber who was going to wear a device similar to the one that that bomber wore in that attempted Christmas Day bombing on Northwest Flight 253 a couple of years ago.

That was a plot where AQAP had sent the young man to the U.S. with a bomb hidden in his underwear. And something went wrong with the detonation device, that bomb didn't go off, and they arrested the young man.

The U.S. and some intelligence partners got their hands on this newest bomb and they said that it had some real similarities to that earlier underwear bomb.

GREENE: And so in this new plot, just so I understand it, do U.S. officials actually have the bomb in hand that was supposed to used in an attack?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, it's actually sitting at their lab in Quantico, Virginia. And they say that it's very similar to some bombs AQAP had used in plots and assassination attempts in the past. What's so special about the underwear bomb is that airport screening systems don't pick it up. And what the FBI is trying to figure out is whether the new device could also have evaded security systems.

This new bomb apparently has an improved detonation system. And the reason that's interesting is because at the time of the Christmas Day plot, officials say that bomb should have gone off, but something was wrong with the detonator. AQAP must have heard that or maybe figured it out for themselves, but at any rate they redesigned it.

GREENE: I mean this sound potentially scary. Like we're talking about some very sophisticated stuff that they're working on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, that's what worries them, is that they are scary and they are sophisticated. And all that sophistication they think is the work of a man named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He's a 28-year-old Saudi who was with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for years, and he's considered by U.S. authorities to be a bomb-making genius.

He was not only behind the Christmas Day underwear bomb, but he apparently designed other bombs that were hidden in ink cartridges of computer printers a couple of years ago. That plot was foiled just in time too. It was aimed at U.S. cargo planes.

But one of my source who had actually seen the cartridge bomb and knows quite a bit about bombs himself called it a thing of beauty. He said the bomb was that good. And this latest device is supposed to be the latest generation of Asiri's work.

GREENE: Well, how are officials so sure that he's the one who built these bombs we're talking about?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in this case there are two reasons. Officials say his thumb print was on the underwear bomber device. But even if that hadn't been the case, bomb makers have signatures. And basically if you have a bomb that works and you didn't blow yourself up making it, you make it the same way every time. You twist the green wires three times, not four, you tape things in exactly the same way. And those little tics become signatures to trace bombs to particular people.

In this case, the bomb was also very similar to the underwear bomb, and they know who - they think they know who made that.

GREENE: And just to be clear, Dina, to put people at ease, there was no imminent threat in this new plot that we know about.

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, the FBI specifically came out and said there wasn't an imminent threat and they were on top of it. AQAP had told the bomber that he could attack at any time of his choosing and he could choose whichever flight he wanted, but he hadn't bought his tickets yet.

GREENE: OK, Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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