Al-Qaida bomb master is key to Yemen franchise
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri represents the CIA's worst fears: a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack America.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates —
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri has built a reputation as al-Qaida's bomb-making savant one potential near miss at a time: Explosive-rigged underwear aboard a Christmas flight to the United States in 2009, printers fitted with high-grade explosives the next year and now possibly a metal-free device that could avoid airport detectors.
Before that, he turned his own brother into a suicide bomber in a mission that injured Saudi Arabia's top counterterrorism official and later was decried by the U.S. State Department for its "brutality, novelty and sophistication."
U.S. authorities Tuesday probed the latest device believed to be the work of the Saudi-born al-Asiri or one of his students after it was uncovered in a CIA operation. It was described as a refinement of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. The twist this time was an absence of metal, which could have made the device undetectable by conventional airport scanners.
If it were not for a technical problem (the device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.
"Ibrahim al-Asiri is the one who enabled the operations of al-Qaida in Yemen to move from local attacks to international ones," said Said Obaid, the Yemeni author of a book about AQAP.
Over the past year, AQAP has taken advantage of Yemen's political turmoil and seized large swaths of southern Yemen.
Asiri's family hails from southwest Saudi Arabia, near the Yemeni border, the region that was home to several Sept. 11 hijackers. But nothing in Asiri's childhood suggested that he and his brother Abdullah would turn to jihad. Born in Riyadh in 1982, Asiri is the son of a four-decade Saudi military officer.
"They used to listen to music and had a wide variety of friends, friends not like the ones they had later, when they became more religious," his mother told the Saudi newspaper al-Watan in a 2009 interview.
A sister told al-Watan that her brothers became more devout and reclusive after the death of their elder brother in a car accident in 2000. "It was after that that they started swapping videotapes and cassettes on the mujahedeen," she said.
Asiri studied chemistry in Riyadh, but when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, he became more radicalized, like thousands in the Arab world. He tried to join al-Qaida in Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation but was arrested by Saudi authorities as he tried to cross the border. He was imprisoned for nine months and released.
Soon after, according to Saudi officials, he and Abdullah launched an extremist cell linked to the al-Qaida wing in Saudi Arabia to plot attacks against oil pipelines, the royal family and security services. He was placed on the kingdom's most-wanted list of al-Qaida terrorists. By 2007, when al-Qaida's Yemen and Saudi branches merged to create AQAP, Asiri and his brother had crossed into Yemen.
Al-Asiri, 30, arrived in Yemen in 2006 after being jailed by Saudi officials in crackdowns against Islamic extremists.
"They put me in prison and I began to see the depths of (the Saudi) servitude to the Crusaders and their hatred for the true worshippers of God, from the way they interrogated me," he is quoted as saying in the September 2009 issue of Sada al-Malahem, or Voice of Battles, an Arabic-language online magazine put out by al-Qaida's branch in Yemen.
In Yemen's rugged northern mountains, they met with fugitive Yemeni extremist Nasser al-Wahishi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden, and became the nucleus of the new al-Qaida affiliate, AQAP.
They later brought in U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as a powerful propaganda voice in the West. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike last September. U.S. intelligence officials mistakenly believed at first al-Asiri also was killed in the attack.
In August 2009, his brother Abdullah posed as a disenchanted extremist wishing to surrender to high-ranking officials in his homeland. A Saudi royal jet was dispatched. To avoid detection, the explosives were reportedly hidden in his rectum or held between his legs.
Once inside the Saudi intelligence offices in the Red Sea port of Jiddah, he detonated the device near his target: Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef — whose father Prince Nayef ran the ministry and later would become the kingdom's heir to the throne.
Prince Mohammed was slightly injured in the blast.
The bomb used an industrial explosive known as PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the same material used in 2001 by convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight.
Investigators pulled al-Asiri's fingerprint off the bomb hidden in the underwear of the Nigerian-born suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aboard the Northwest Airlines flight after the failed Christmas 2009 bombing.
A Justice Department sentencing memo from February in the Abdulmutallab case describes Asiri as having the Nigerian "practice the manner in which the bomb would be detonated; that is, by pushing the plunger of a syringe, causing two chemicals to mix, and initiating a fire (which would then detonate the explosive)."
Less than a year later, al-Asiri was linked to the discovery of printer cartridges packed with PETN and sent by international courier with Chicago-area synagogues listed as the destination. The explosive-rigged packages — believed powerful enough to bring down a plane — were pulled off airplanes in England and the United Arab Emirates.