If Saudi Arabian and Yemeni officials are to be believed, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri has been honing his bombmaking skills for the past three years and is fiercely committed to the twin causes of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): Destroying the Saudi monarchy and lashing out at the United States.
Officials say he's the man who likely constructed the well-concealed bombs hidden inside computer printer ink cartridges that AQAP sought to have delivered by air freight from Yemen to Chicago (though some analysts believe the actual intent was to blow up the FedEx and UPS cargo planes over the Atlantic). If true, his skills appear to have improved with practice. Forensic analysts say the bombs demonstrated a high level of sophistication and were likely to be lethal, a big step up from two previous international bombing attempts that authorities say were led by Mr. Asiri.
The construction of homemade bombs has long been a cottage industry for insurgents and terrorists. From Al Qaeda-linked militants in Southeast Asia, to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan whose roadside IED's have caused the most casualties in those two wars, cells typically rely on a small cadre of skilled people to build their bombs, and that cadre's skills invariably improve if they avoid capture or death.
That makes Asiri a crucial target for the Saudis, the Yemeni government, and the United States, which has grown increasingly alarmed at evidence that a self-contained and competent offshoot of the original Al Qaeda is now flourishing in Yemen's lawless tribal regions.
Asiri appears to be the "getting things done guy" and if so, his arrest or assassination is probably now at the top of the US's target list, above even Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. While Mr. Awlaki, charged by Yemen on Tuesday with inciting violence against foreigners, is also a target, the fiery preacher is more of an ideologue than an operative.
Asiri's family members say he vanished from Saudi Arabia about three years ago. His father told the Saudi press that he didn't know what had become of his son until he was named to the Saudi government's most wanted list in February 2009. Apparently, he'd fled to Yemen, where many Saudi Al Qaeda operatives have been chased by the Saudi security services since 9/11, largely quelling a wave of Al Qaeda inspired attacks that had many international analysts worried about the stability of the Kingdom in the first half of the last decade.
In August of 2009, Asiri demonstrated what Saudi Arabia had been so afraid of: He dispatched his younger brother as a suicide bomber to assassinate Saudi counterterrorism chief Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Abdullah al-Asiri contacted the Saudi government and said he wanted to renounce violence and rejoin society. Allowed to come home, he was invited to meet with Mr. Nayef, and blew himself up with a bomb that Saudi authorities said was concealed in a body cavity. The blast killed the younger Asiri but left Nayef with only minor injuries.
His second international effort involved the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber who tried to detonate his concealed explosive on a crowded flight to Detroit, injuring no one but himself.
While AQAP's international efforts have largely been failures so far, they've been creating major problems in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country. In addition to dealing with this group of religiously inspired militants, Yemeni authorities are contending with two other insurgencies not tied to Al Qaeda.
Fares al-Sanabani, the publisher of the Yemen observer newspaper, told Al Jazeera english that AQAP has shot and killed 70 Yemeni policemen in the past two months, and says the Yemeni government will be pushing the US and other governments for more weapons and aid to deal with the problem. “You need equipment, you need training, you need know-how and you need intelligence. That’s what Yemen is lacking and that’s what Yemen wants," he told the network.
Dealing with Yemen's internal problems will be a matter of years. But removing Asiri from the picture will probably reduce the chances of a succesful international attack emenating from the country – at least until another young firebrand develops the skills to take his place.