US-bound airport security tightens amid worry about one bombmaker

Al Qaeda follower Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri has a talent for building hard-to-detect bombs, and now intelligence indicates that he has ties to an Islamist group whose members include Westerners – who don't need visas to travel to the US. 

Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/AP
Passengers queue at the security checkpoint at the Rhein-Main airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday. US intelligence officials are concerned that al-Qaeda is trying to develop a new and improved bomb that could go undetected through airport security. There is no indication that such a bomb has been created or that there's a specific threat to the US, but the Obama administration on Wednesday called for tighter security measures at foreign airports that have direct flights to the US.

Increased security measures for some European and Middle Eastern airports with direct flights to the United States, ordered by the US Wednesday, reflect heightened concerns about the talents of one particular terrorist – and the contacts he may have made with a particular subset of jihadist terrorists.

The individual the US is worried about is Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi-born Al Qaeda follower in Yemen whose particular talent is building hard-to-detect bombs – or perhaps even undetectable bombs.

The information that has the US ramping up security around US-bound flights is that Mr. Asiri may have established a working relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, according to some US counterterrorism officials.

Asiri is known for having equipped the “underwear bomber” with the undetected explosives he attempted to detonate on a Christmas Day flight approaching Detroit in 2009.

Jabhat al-Nusra is known to have welcomed hundreds of Westerners, and in particular Western European Muslims, into its ranks. That’s the subset of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists the US is increasingly worried about.

The combination of Asiri’s bombs and terrorists with Western European passports boarding flights to the US could be devastating, American counterterrorism officials and experts say.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a statement saying his agency had shared “recent and relevant” information with overseas partners. On the basis of that information, he added, he also directed the Transportation Security Administration to put new security measures in place in some airports because of “an evolving environment.”

In Britain, airport security officials said the new measures could include enhanced efforts to scrutinize electronics and shoes, in particular, for nonmetallic explosives.

But British government officials also hinted that the measures were not in response to a specific terrorist threat anticipated over the next few days, but that instead they reflected a new kind of threat that will affect airport security indefinitely.

“I don’t think we should expect this to be a one-off temporary thing,” Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, told London’s LBC Radio. He suggested that travelers should get used to the new measures.

What has counterterrorism officials so worried is that enhanced airport security measures may not be keeping up with Al Qaeda’s advancing technical skills – and in particular with Asiri’s quest to develop a virtually undetectable bomb.

Asiri, who is affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, is believed to be behind efforts to build nonmetallic bombs that could be sewn into clothing (such as the underwear bomb) or implanted directly into a suicide bomber’s body.

In one particularly chilling example of this technique, Asiri’s 23-year-old brother Abdullah tried in 2009 to assassinate Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muhammad bin Nayef by detonating a bomb that had been inserted into his body. The bomb exploded prematurely, and only Abdullah al-Asiri died in the attack.

Booby-trapping human bodies with explosives is nothing new, and Westerners have become accustomed to hearing of suicide bombers wearing explosive vests carrying out attacks, especially in countries battling Islamist extremists. But intelligence suggests that terrorists are working to develop bombs that would be implanted surgically inside a suicide bomber and be undetectable to current security scanning systems, counterterrorism experts say.

One challenge that may be slowing someone like Asiri, they add, is developing an implantable bomb small enough to go undetected and to allow the would-be bomber carrying it to continue functioning, while at the same time delivering enough of a blast to destroy more than just the body of the bomber.

US and other Western counterterrorism officials aren’t certain how far Asiri and other bombmakers have come in their quest for an airliner-destroying body bomb. But they say that the threat posed by Westerners who have gone to fight in the jihadist trenches of Syria and Iraq is real today and isn’t dependent on perfection of an undetectable bomb.

It’s a threat that President Obama – perhaps in something of a precursor to this week’s enhanced airport security measures – spoke of in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday.

“We’ve seen Europeans who are sympathetic to [the Islamist extremists’] cause traveling into Syria and now may travel into Iraq, getting battle-hardened. Then they come back,” Mr. Obama said. “They’ve got European passports. They don’t need a visa to get into the United States.”

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