The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has thwarted a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using an improved version of the so-called underwear bomb, U.S. officials confirmed on Monday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it seized an improvised explosive device (IED) as a result of cooperation with security and intelligence partners overseas, although it gave no specific details. "The FBI currently has possession of the IED and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it," the agency said.
It is believed the explosive device was seized during a recent operation in Yemen after U.S. intelligence officials first learned of the plot in April. Officials described the bomb as similar to the one used by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when he attempted to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit in December 2009. But the latest device is believed to have a better detonation system, which failed in the 2009 attempt.
"Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations," the FBI said in its statement, giving no specific details. Some press reports described the new device as 'undetectable' by security technology currently used at airports.
The announcement of the plot comes just a day after a U.S. drone strike killed senior al-Qaeda operative Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in southeast Yemen. While it was not immediately clear if the airstrike was connected to the CIA operation to thwart the plot, al-Quso was also involved in the attempted plane bombing in 2009.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House, said President Barack Obama was first informed about the plot in April by his Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan. "He has received regular updates and briefings as needed from his national security team," she said.
Hayden said the disruption of the bomb plot underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism in the United States and abroad. "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," she added.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has orchestrated high-profile attacks since 2009, is based primarily in the tribal areas outside of the Yemeni capital city Sanaa, which remain outside the control of the Yemeni government. But the United States and Yemen have been cooperating to combat the militants.