The U.S. disrupted a Yemen-based plot to build a potentially undetectable bomb to blow up an airliner in the month before the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, federal and congressional officials said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has the device and is analyzing it, the agency said in a statement. The bomb is “very similar” to devices used by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in previous attempted terror strikes, the FBI said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said her staff was briefed by intelligence officials who said the bomb was based on “the same device” used in a failed attempt by the terror group to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas 2009.
“This would have been an undetectable bomb coming in on an American airliner into the United States,” Feinstein said.
Officials with the White House, CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security declined to release details about the bomb’s composition, when and where the device was seized and whether the would-be bomber or others related to the plot are in custody. The Department of Homeland Security said the device targeted “the aviation sector.”
President Barack Obama was told of the plot in April, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Not a Threat
“While the president was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack,” Hayden said in an e-mailed statement.
The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the CIA seized the device before a would-be bomber based in Yemen chose a target or bought airplane tickets, and that the device was a more sophisticated version of the explosive that was smuggled in the underwear of an al-Qaeda operative on a U.S.-bound flight.
The device did not contain metal and that the FBI was studying whether it could have passed airport body scanners undetected, said the AP, which first reported the story.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of bin Laden’s terror organization, also attempted to evade airline security with bombs concealed in toner cartridges in 2010.
Intelligence helped uncover the printer equipment smuggled aboard two cargo flights from Yemen, and a failed detonation alerted fellow passengers who subdued the would-be bomber aboard a Detroit-bound jet originating in Amsterdam.
The administration previously said there were no indications that militants would use the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden’s killing by a U.S. Navy SEAL team in Pakistan to stage an attack.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on April 26 that “we have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.”
He said al-Qaeda affiliates “remain intent on conducting attacks in the homeland, possibly to avenge the death of bin Laden, but not necessarily tied to the anniversary.”
Obama’s counter terrorism adviser John Brennan said in an April 30 speech in Washington that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the terrorist group’s “most active affiliate, and it continues to seek the opportunity to strike our homeland.” He did not mention any bomb plot around the anniversary.
Maine Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano didn’t draw a connection between the anniversary of bin Laden’s death and the plot when she briefed members of Congress.
“It’s a credit to the intelligence-based approach that we are taking to airplane security that the plot was thwarted before it could be carried out,” Collins said.