Ibrahim al Asiri: Mysterious Yemeni Bomb Maker Targeting America

As the leaked WikiLeaks cables reveal, Yemen is the new frontier in the war on terror. Bruce Riedel on the little-known bomb maker at the top of U.S. officials' most-wanted list.

12.11.10 9:23 PM ET

As the recent diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks make perfectly clear, Yemen is the new frontier in the war on terror. Among other things, the leaked memos show American officials believe that the country is a key transit point for arms smuggling to Hamas; that the Yemeni government spent U.S.-funded counterterrorism aid to crack down on a Shite uprising; and used American concerns about terrorism as leverage for more funds.

"If you don't help, this country will become worse than Somalia," President Ali Abdullah Saleh told John Brennan, the top U.S. counterterrorism official, according to a September 2009 cable.

As the war on terrorists in Yemen heats up, American officials have trained their sights on Ibrahim al Asiri, a little-known figure who hopes to blast his way into our history.

“If you don’t help, this country will become worse than Somalia.”

Although he is only about 28-years-old, Asiri—a Saudi-born, suspected al Qaeda bomb maker—already has an impressive rap sheet, according to Saudi and American intelligence officials.

Asiri allegedly built the bomb that his brother Abdullah used in a failed attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, in August last year. A few months later, he reportedly created the bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try and blow up a Northwest Airlines flight last Christmas as it was descending over southern Ontario to Detroit. He was also behind the parcel bombs that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula dispatched to Chicago on the eve of last month's election in an effort to blow up UPS and Fed Ex planes. (Thanks to a tip from Saudi intelligence the bombs were intercepted in Dubai and England, and Yemen has since shot back at international criticism that it wasn't doing enough to apprehend al Qaeda suspects within its borders.)

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula devoted the third edition of its new online English language Web journal, Inspire, to the parcel bomb plots, claiming it has a team of crafty bomb makers building bombs which can get through the most sophisticated airport surveillance equipment in the world. It says its goal is to hemorrhage the American economy by conducting waves of small-scale attacks like the parcel bombs (death by a "thousand cuts"). The cover of Inspire proudly proclaims the parcel plot cost just $4,200 to pull off.

The al Qaeda group claims a similar parcel bomb was responsible for blowing up a UPS delivery aircraft in Abu Dhabi in early September although, when I visited the United Arab Emirates last month, security officials from Abu Dhabi said they thought it was not a bomb but that were still investigating the crash.

So who is this mysterious bomb maker at the top of the terror list?

Recent reports from Saudi Arabia provide revealing pieces for a portrait of Asiri. Born in to a middle-class family, he grew up in a province in a southwestern part of the country on the border with Yemen—an area that was also once home to several of the 9/11 hijackers.

The death of an older brother, who died in a car accident in 2000 or 2001, seemed to make both Asiri and his brother more devout, turning them toward a more religious frame of mind. Two years later, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, further radicalized Asiri, who, like many in the region, was outraged by the images of U.S. and British troops occupying Iraq. Intent on joining the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq under the leadership of the famous Jordanian terrorist Ahmad Fadil al Khalayilah, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, Asiri left his studies in the chemistry department at Kind Saud University but apparently never made it to Iraq. He was arrested by Saudi border guards and imprisoned.

After nine months in jail he was released to his family's custody, probably as part of the kingdom's jihadist rehabilitation program, but quickly vanished into the underground al Qaeda terror network in Saudi Arabia. He is alleged to have helped al Qaeda's campaign of terror in 2005-2006, a campaign aimed at the royal family that was eventually crushed by Muhammad bin Nayef and the Saudi security infrastructure. Saudi sources say his al Qaeda cell focused on plots to assassinate members of the royal family or security services.

Like many other members of the al Qaeda Saudi underground, he fled to Yemen and was listed on one of the kingdom's most wanted lists of al Qaeda terrorists hiding there. In Yemen, Asiri linked up with the local branch of al Qaeda, which merged with the Saudi branch to create al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was apparently involved in developing explosives for an attack on the American embassy in Sana in 2008. He and his younger brother thought up the plot to kill Muhammad bin Nayif a year later, in which Abdullah feigned being a discontented jihadist who wanted to turn himself into the authorities. Instead he just wanted to get close enough to the prince to kill him. He stumbled just as he was approaching him and the bomb went off a moment too soon.

Asiri's path to terror is not unusual. The Iraq War produced a generation of jihadists from across the Islamic world, people who, radicalized by the invasion, turned to al Qaeda. Hundreds, if not thousands, of jihadists flocked to Iraq at the height of the war, getting their first combat experience there. Many others stayed home but were turned to jihad by watching the images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and other radicalizing issues.

The story of Asiri's ascent in the terror organization is instructive. What should be clear by now is that we will be dealing with the hatred fueled by our strategic misadventure in Iraq for years to come.

Together with what al Qaeda calls the "bleeding wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps next in Yemen, bomb plots by Asiri and others are designed to wear America down through attrition, just as the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980s bled the Soviet Union until it collapsed. In fact, the terrorists said they had such great hopes for the parcel attacks that they included a copy of the novel Great Expectations in the mailing envelope concealing the bombs, suggesting that our enemies have a sadistic sense of humor. Apparently, the Dickens masterpiece is a favorite of AQAP's American face, Anwar Awlaki. Perhaps not surprisingly, the firebrand preacher, who comes from New Mexico, is also hiding in Yemen.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has advised Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama on Afghanistan on the staff of the NSC and is author of The Search for al Qaeda.