The foiled plot to put a suicide bomber on a jet bound for the United States shows our intelligence successes against al Qaeda continue. The bomber may have been a successful penetration of al Qaeda, but the plot also shows we have an enemy in Yemen that is determined to strike the American homeland. That enemy is gaining ground at home where a master bomb maker is teaching his workshop on how to build more.
The few details so far released on the latest plot suggest the bomb was made by a Saudi named Ibrahim al Asiri. U.S. experts who have looked at his previous creations characterize him as a genius at the miniaturization of bombs. Asiri is the bomb maker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadist franchise that is based in Yemen. Asiri built the bomb with which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, tried to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas day 2009 as it was descending over southern Ontario to Detroit. Abdulmutallab was told to choose any American destination, the date and the flight he wanted by then-head of AQAP operations Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico–born terrorist killed in a drone strike last year. This new bomber apparently had similar instructions from Awlaki's successor, Fahd al Quso, who was killed in a drone strike last Sunday.
Asiri also built the parcel bombs that AQAP dispatched to Chicago on the eve of our elections in 2010 to try to blow up UPS and Fed Ex planes that were instead found in Dubai and England, thanks to a tip from Saudi intelligence. AQAP claims a similar parcel bomb was responsible for blowing up a UPS delivery aircraft in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 3, 2010. Al Qaeda publicly said those bombs cost less than $4,200 to make and were a product of Asiri’s workshop in Yemen. And Ibrahim built the bomb that his brother Abdullah used in his failed attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, in August 2009.
Asiri, 30, is from a family originally from Asir province in southwest Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border, the same area where several of the 9/11 hijackers came from. He and his brother were born in Riyadh, the capital, into a middle-class military family. An elder brother died in a car accident in 2000 or 2001, which seems to have made both brothers more devout in their lifestyles and turned them toward a more religious frame of mind.
It was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that radicalized Ibrahim. Like many in the Islamic world he was outraged by the images of American and British troops occupying Iraq. He left his studies in the chemistry department at King Saud University and tried to join the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq fighting the occupation. His goal was to join the jihadist group led by the famous Jordanian terrorist Ahmad Fadil al Khalayilah, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Musaib al-Zarqawi who led al Qaeda's trail of violence and terror in Iraq until his death in 2006.
Asiri apparently never made it to Iraq. He was arrested by Saudi border guards and imprisoned in the kingdom. After nine months in jail he was released to his family's custody probably as part of the kingdom's jihadist rehabilitation program. In a few months he and his brother vanished into the underground al Qaeda terror network in the kingdom. He probably spent some time helping al Qaeda's campaign of terror in 2005–06 against the royal family, a campaign 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. He was listed on one of the kingdom's most-wanted lists of al Qaeda terrorists hiding there. In Yemen Asiri linked up with the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda that merged with the Saudi branch to create AQAP. 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 Nayef 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 who were radicalized by the invasion and occupation of the country and turned to al Qaeda. Hundreds if not thousands of other jihadists flocked to Iraq at the height of the war and got their first combat experience. Many others stayed home but were turned to jihad by watching the films of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and other radicalizing issues. We will be dealing with the hatred fed by our strategic misadventure in Iraq for years to come.
The Saudis are a critical ally in the struggle against AQAP and probably helped in foiling this latest plot. The Obama team has been working closely with Riyadh to try to put the Yemeni Humpty-Dumpty back together. The country has always been marked by a weak central government, but since the Arab Spring last year Yemen has dissolved into warring factions. AQAP has taken advantage of the chaos to build a growing power base in the south outside Aden. There Asiri is undoubtedly training a new generation of bomb makers. He and his students may well have built more than one of the latest version captured by the CIA. They are certain to keep trying to blast their way into American history.