MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The bombs concealed in two air cargo shipments last week never reached their destinations, but not because they were detected by any airport X-ray equipment. U.S. officials instead credit an intelligence tip from Saudi authorities. The bombs themselves were expertly hidden in printer cartridges.
The expert who hid them and built them is believed to be a 28-year-old Saudi man, who is said to be a key member of the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen.
NPR's Tom Gjelten has this profile.
TOM GJELTEN: The group calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, has emerged as the most active al-Qaida operation outside of Pakistan. It was also responsible for the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit last Christmas, among other attacks.
One of the spiritual leaders is a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. But the group's top weapons specialist is believed to be a young Saudi by the name of Ibrahim al-Asiri, who moved to Yemen about three years ago. So says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Association, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Ibrahim is believed by the Saudi authorities to be hiding out in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and is thought to be a bomb-maker, as well as having experience with poisons and toxins and rockets and missiles.
GJELTEN: Al-Asiri is thought to have designed the bomb that was hidden in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate it on board a passenger flight over Detroit last Christmas. Another was a suicide bomb meant to assassinate a Saudi prince in August 2009.
None of these attempts has been successful. You could say al-Asiri is 0 for three. But in another sense he's three for three. All three bombs were cleverly hidden and passed undetected through X-ray machines and other security equipment.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan yesterday said the cargo bombs were very sophisticated devices, built by someone with quote, "very proficient bomb-making capabilities."
Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Counterterrorism Adviser, White House): The individual who has been making these bombs, whether it be the one that was given to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or the one that was attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, or the ones that were found in these packages, is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience. And we need to find him. We need to bring him to justice.
GJELTEN: Brennan was speaking there on ABC.
A U.S. explosives expert with experience analyzing terrorist attacks says the bomb designs in each of these cases did not require high engineering skill. And he asked not to be identified because of his security work. But he noted that IRA bombers in Northern Ireland came up with similar designs years ago.
But al-Asiri and his AQAP colleagues have shown ingenuity in hiding their bombs. The device intended to kill the Saudi prince was hidden somewhere on and possibly inside the bomber's body.
Carnegie's Christopher Boucek, editor of a new book on Yemen, says the al-Qaida group there clearly takes pride in al-Asiri and his bomb-making operation.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Editor, "Yemen on the Brink"): After the attack against Prince Muhammad in August 2009, AQAP came out and said, we have this undetectable device. You can't find it. You're not going to be able to defeat it. You're going to hear from us again, and we're going to target airliners.
GJELTEN: Little in Ibrahim al-Asiri's education or background explains his bomb-making work for al-Qaida. His Saudi family is conservative, but not radical. His father is a retired military man. His mother has said Ibrahim was not religious as a young man. But he is apparently zealous in his support of al-Qaida. The bomber Ibrahim sent to kill the Saudi prince was his own younger brother, Abdullah. When he learned of Ibrahim's apparent involvement in the death of his brother, the mens' father, Hassan, denounced the bombing, calling it a despicable act.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.