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Is Al-Qaida Dropping Clues About Planned Attacks?

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Is Al-Qaida Dropping Clues About Planned Attacks?

National Security

Is Al-Qaida Dropping Clues About Planned Attacks?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A U.S. Airways jet heading from Paris to Charlotte, North Carolina, was diverted today. That's after a passenger claimed she had a device surgically implanted in her body. There was no bomb and the plane landed safely in Maine.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The episode caused a scare, in part because it comes not long after news of an al-Qaida plot to blow up a plane that was headed to the U.S. Officials say, in that case, a British agent infiltrated the group's arm in Yemen. He was given a suicide mission and then handed the bomb over to the CIA.

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, U.S. officials are now looking back to see if al-Qaida might have left some clues about that plot before it was foiled.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: If there's one thing that's been consistent about al-Qaida, it is its constant taunting of the West. The best known example may be this one.

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OSAMA BIN LADEN: (Through translator) American history does not distinguish between civilians and military, not even women and children.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Osama bin Laden in a 1998 interview with ABC News. He was explaining why he was waging a holy war against the United States and he was sitting in front of a map of East Africa. It only became clear later that he was sending a message.

BRIAN FISHMAN: That incident preceded the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa later that year.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

FISHMAN: What bin Laden was attempting to do was establish the notion that he was in control and that, when those attacks occurred, he could point back and say, look. I knew what was going on and we had a big master plan from the very beginning.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has ripped a page out of bin Laden's playbook. It likes to hint at its plans, as well.

Back in the fall of 2010, in an issue of Inspire magazine, the group's online publication, there was a photograph with no caption of the Chicago skyline. A month later, AQAP tried to send package bombs to synagogues in Chicago. The plot, like the one earlier this month, was foiled by someone inside the group.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Of course, there's always the danger in work and in research like this of reading too much into too little, but there have been some tantalizing clues that have come out of what AQAP itself puts out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, and this time, those tantalizing clues appear to be in the latest issue of Inspire magazine. In one essay, a member of AQAP wrote that the group had gained access to chemicals that were stored in military labs in Southern Yemen, and, according to the essay, the group had modernized its bomb-making labs. And there was more, according to Princeton's Gregory Johnsen, though it's easier to spot clues after the fact.

JOHNSEN: AQAP almost mockingly said that they find it laughable that people in the United States think that the organization - that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - only has one bomb maker.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He's talking about a man named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He's thought to have built the 2009 underwear bomb that a suicide bomber got on a U.S. plane three Christmases ago. Johnsen says that, while al-Asiri has long been the group's premier bomb maker, the unrest in Yemen has undoubtedly given AQAP the opportunity to train others.

JOHNSEN: It's quite possible and, in fact, I think likely that the organization has more than just one bomber, so there's more than one individual working on this and now, in 2012, they have much more room and much more space to build these bombs than they did in 2009 and 2010.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, all this taunting can backfire. In the bomb-making essay, the writer boasts that the group's chief of operations - his name was Fahd al-Quso - had been able to dodge American drones. The essay said that al-Quso often went out in daylight and even conducted an interview with an Arab reporter not far from where a drone had struck in the past. That's how unafraid al-Quso was of the drone program, the magazine said.

Of course, al-Quso was killed a couple of weeks ago in a drone strike. The targeting information is thought to have come from the British agent who had penetrated the group.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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