Details Emerge About Underwear Bomb Creator

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri is the man U.S. authorities believe is behind the latest bomb plot from al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. A former chemistry major dropout, Asiri was radicalized in a Saudi prison after he was arrested for trying to get to Iraq to fight the United States. He has been with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for six years but really made a name for himself among U.S. intelligence officials until 2009, when they discovered his fingerprint on the underwear bomb on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Dina Temple-Raston talks to Audie Cornish about the bomb-maker.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And now for the latest on an al-Qaida plot to bomb a U.S. airliner. It appears the CIA had a secret source who was inside an al-Qaida bomb cell in Yemen. That informant actually brought the bomb out of Yemen, and it eventually ended up in the hands of intelligence officials. The FBI is now analyzing the bomb at its lab in Quantico, Virginia.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with the latest. And Dina, to begin, what can you tell us about this latest development?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the details are still a little sketchy. But what we understand is that there was this source that was secretly working for the CIA and other international intelligence agencies. And he was the one who told them about the plot, and actually found a way to get the bomb to them. We understand that this insider is now safely out of Yemen. We're not sure, exactly, where he or she is right now. We just know that the person is out of Yemen.

We heard the Obama administration say that the public was never in danger from this plot. One reason it might have been so sure about that was because it had an insider and could see the plot unfolding.

CORNISH: So if the administration had this inside source, that person might have been able to provide intelligence not just about the plot, but maybe who was involved as well?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. What we aren't sure about yet is how much information beyond this one plot the insider provided. We learned over the weekend a top al-Qaida operative in Yemen was killed in a drone strike. His name is Fahd al-Quso. And he's somebody that was on the FBI's Most Wanted terrorist list. He was the new external operations chief for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That meant that he was kind of in charge of the plots against the West. And it's unclear if the insider provided new information that led the U.S. to target and kill al-Quso. But the timing certainly suggests that there could've been some connection.

CORNISH: Now, this bomb that the FBI is studying - it's been said that it's similar to the underwear bomb used in the plot on Christmas Day a few years back.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. It's an upgraded version, apparently, with a better detonation system. Officials say that the bomb didn't have any metal in it, so it could have slipped through some airport security. And the Department of Homeland Security said U.S. systems would have picked it up, but it might have gone undetected in European airports.

Officials also say that it looks like it's the work of a man named Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri. He either built this - or at least, someone who learned bomb-making from him, built it.

CORNISH: Now, what more do we know about this bomb maker?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know he's a Saudi. We know he's about 29 years old, and that he was a chemistry major at a university in Riyadh. He wanted to go and fight in Iraq against the U.S. but apparently, he was arrested at the border. And then when he was thrown into a Saudi prison, he was apparently radicalized there. He's been with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for about six years. And he really made a name for himself among U.S. intelligence officials in 2009, when they discovered his fingerprint on that Christmas Day underwear bomb.

CORNISH: Lastly, Dina, has the Obama administration ruled out that there are other bombs out there? Do we have any more information on this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think there are two things that U.S. officials concerned about: more bombs and potentially, more bomb makers. As I mentioned, al-Asiri has been with al-Qaida for six years. And since that time, there's been this aggressive drone program against the group. In fact, the U.S. thought they had killed him last year, and they thought he was in the same convoy as the one that was carrying radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki. And it took them weeks to find out that he, in fact, was still alive.

Intelligence officials are working under the assumption that AQAP doesn't want to lose their bomb-making ability if he gets killed in a drone strike. So they've probably trained other people. And so while they think this latest bomb is the work of al-Asiri, it's possible it's from one of his proteges.

CORNISH: Dina, thank you for giving us the update.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CORNISH: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, with the latest on the foiled plot to bomb an airliner headed to the U.S.

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