For months, a top target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen has been Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric and al-Qaida propagandist who allegedly inspired both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused Christmas Day bomber; and Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in the killing of 12 fellow soldiers and a civilian at Fort Hood, Texas.
With last week's discovery of two bombs hidden in air cargo shipments, however, another al-Qaida figure in Yemen, Ibrahim al-Asiri, has joined Awlaki on the Most-Wanted list.
Al-Asiri, a 28-year-old Saudi national, is suspected of designing and building the bombs that were expertly concealed inside Hewlett-Packard printers sent from Yemen to addresses in Chicago. He is also thought to have been responsible for the "underwear" bomb in the Christmas Day attempt and another bomb meant to kill Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the chief of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service.
Al-Asiri's bomb-making skill and experience has reportedly elevated him to the top ranks of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based group that has emerged as the most active al-Qaida operation outside of Pakistan.
"Ibrahim is believed by the Saudi authorities to be hiding out in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," says Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He's thought to be a bomb-maker, as well as having experience with poisons and toxins and rockets and missiles."
None of al-Asiri's best-known bombs has hit its intended target. Abdulmutallab was caught before he could detonate the bomb he was allegedly carrying. The suicide bomber who tried to assassinate bin Nayef was himself killed in the blast, but the Saudi prince escaped serious injury.
With the failure of the cargo bombs to reach their destinations last week, al-Asiri could be said to be 0-for-3 in his high-profile bombing attempts. In another sense, however, al-Asiri is 3-for-3. All the bombs were cleverly hidden and passed undetected through X-ray machines and other security equipment.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, speaking Sunday on television news programs, called the cargo bombs "very sophisticated devices" and said they were built by someone with "very proficient bomb-making capabilities."
"The individual who has been making these bombs, whether it be the one that was given to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or the one that was attempted to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia or the ones that were found in these packages, is a very dangerous individual, clearly somebody who has a fair amount of training and experience," Brennan said on ABC's This Week. "And we need to find him. We need to bring him to justice."
A U.S. explosives expert with experience analyzing terrorist attacks says the bomb designs in each of these cases did not require high engineering skill. He asked not to be identified because of his security work, but he noted that Irish Republican Army bombers in Northern Ireland came up with similar designs years ago.
Concealing The Devices
Al-Asiri and his colleagues in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have shown ingenuity, however, in hiding their bombs. The device intended to kill the Saudi prince was hidden somewhere on and possibly inside the bomber's body.
Boucek, editor of a new book, Yemen on the Brink, says al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula clearly takes pride in al-Asiri and his bomb-making operation.
"After the attack against Prince Muhammad in August 2009," Boucek says, "AQAP came out and said, 'We have this undetectable device. You can't find it. You're not going to be able to defeat it. You're going to hear from us again, and we're going to target airliners.' "
Little in al-Asiri's education or background explains his bomb-making work for al-Qaida. His Saudi family is conservative, but not radical. His father, Hassan, is a retired military man. His mother has said Ibrahim was not religious as a young man. But he is apparently zealous in his support of al-Qaida. The bomber Ibrahim sent to kill the Saudi prince was his own younger brother, Abdullah.
When he learned of Ibrahim's apparent involvement in the death of his brother, Hassan, the father, denounced the bombing, calling it "a despicable act."