In October 2011, MSA’s Intelligence team reported on the possible death of Ibrahim al-Asiri, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) lead bomb-maker. He allegedly died in the same drone strike that killed the key face and operational force of AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaki, and editor of the group’s propaganda magazine Inspire, Samir Khan. News reporting in the past several days indicates a change in al-Asiri’s status. It is now believed that he went underground and into hiding following Awlaki’s death in 2011. There is speculation that he is continuing to build bombs.
Al-Asiri is believed to have built devices used in some of AQAP’s most significant attempts targeting the United States. He is well-known for designing improvised explosive devices (IED) to bypass airport and other security protocols and procedures. The following provides further insight into al-Asiri’s AQAP role and creative bomb-making techniques:
- In August 2009, the attempted assassination of Muhammad bin Nayef was carried out by al-Asiri’s brother. Officials suspect al-Asiri developed the device, which consisted of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and was referred to as a “body bomb” because it was hidden either inside or just outside the bomber’s body cavity to elude metal detectors.
- On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid a PETN device in his underwear to pass through airport security for Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Al-Asiri was linked to his device as well.
- Al-Asiri is suspected in the October 2010 thwarted cargo bomb plot. Two explosive devices made with PETN were concealed in printers and sent on two separate cargo aircraft headed to the United States. The devices originally went undetected before officials received a tip from authorities in Saudi Arabia.
- The first device was found in East Midlands Airport in London after it had left Yemen on a passenger flight before switching to a cargo plane.
- The second device was found in at a freight forwarders facility in Dubai and was carried on two passenger flights before it was intercepted.
A creative bomb maker such as al-Asiri is a continuing threat to aircraft security. His devices are designed to elude security protocols and technologies. This complicates the operational environment for system designers and manufacturers. Technology or mitigation strategies are only as good as the operator who makes the judgment call whether an item is safe for transit or if the item poses a threat to the mode of conveyance, personnel, or brand/business operations. Any successful aircraft attack will have significant economic and program implications well beyond the cost of the physical loss in an insurance or impact study. Enhanced training of screening personnel, establishment of higher level screening capabilities and practiced emergency response plans are critical to dealing with this continued threat.