'Undetectable' bomb reveals how Al Qaeda threat to US is evolving

The foiled plot to plant another 'underwear bomb' on a US airliner shows that as the core of Al Qaeda declines, affiliates like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are taking the lead.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Travelers pass through the security check point at Portland International Airport, in Portland, Ore., in this file photo. Airport security procedures don’t need to be toughened despite the discovery of a new Al Qaeda airline bomb plot using more sophisticated technology than an earlier attempt, congressional and security officials said Tuesday.

The discovery of an “underwear bomb” designed to avoid airport metal detectors offers a portrait of a clever new Al Qaeda – increasingly decentralized and intent on attacking the United States.

The bomb bears the audacious imprint of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which developed the device used by the would-be suicide bomber on an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. It is the third foiled effort by the Yemen-based group to carry out an attack on US soil.

It also makes the offshoot Al Qaeda group the No. 1 terrorist threat to the United States, top intelligence officials agree.

In the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden one year ago, so-called Al Qaeda “affiliates” have risen in importance and “will surpass the core Al Qaeda remaining in Pakistan” in its ability to threaten the United States,” says Robert Cardillo, deputy director for intelligence integration with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Not only will AQAP and other affiliates “seek opportunities to strike Western interests in its operating area,” they will continue to target Americans in the United States as well, Mr. Cardillo adds.

To do so, the terrorist group is finding new ways to spread and morph, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN this week. “They are very able scientists,” he added. “These are sophisticated people. They never stop.”

For now, AQAP is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the failure of the 2009 device, according to top US officials. Both bombs contained PETN, a powdery explosive that is undetectable by airport X-ray machines. Also in 2009, AQAP rigged computer printers with explosives and attempted to deliver them to Chicago.

“This seems to be a new level of sophistication by Al Qaeda, probably Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Congressman King said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is testing the device now, but officials question whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) could have detected the device without intelligence about AQAP’s plans, which likely came from Saudis, according to US officials.

A CIA drone strike this weekend is said to have taken out the head of external operations for AQAP, Fahd al-Quso, who is responsible for plotting attacks on the US as well as the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, according to US officials. 

Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the US Department of State, warned last year that AQAP is the No. 1 terrorist threat to the United States as it continues to try to acquire and hold territory in Yemen. 

Most concerning of all, he added, AQAP remains unique in its “relentless desire to carry out a terrorist attack” on US soil.

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