July 29, 2013
The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist
August 5, 2013 (print edition)
Ibrahim al-Asiri didn’t need Edward Snowden to tell him the U.S. might be tracking his telephone and Internet use. Last November, a drone-fired missile plunged out of the sky and killed al-Asiri’s boss, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as he talked on his cell phone north of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. “Lax security measures during his telephone contacts has enabled the enemy to [identify and] kill him,” another AQAP member lamented on a video released July 17. Al-Asiri himself is in radio-silent hiding somewhere in Yemen, having been the target of repeated American drone strikes. The U.S. thought it killed him in a strike on Sept. 30, 2011, but he was not among the dead. In May 2012, another strike targeted a man emerging from his car: the CIA thought it was al-Asiri, but it turned out to be another AQAP leader.
There’s a reason the U.S. has been hunting this Saudi Arabian national—little known outside counterterrorism circles—so hard. President Obama and his top counterterrorism officials believe al-Asiri is the most dangerous terrorist in the world. His fingerprints were found on the “underwear bomb” that failed to blow up when a young Nigerian suicide bomber tried to ignite it aboard a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. Al-Asiri also built the bombs hidden in printer cartridges that came within hours of blowing up two Chicago-bound international cargo planes in October 2010: a tip-off by a Saudi Arabian intelligence mole within AQAP led to the bombs’ being found and removed. In May 2012, al-Asiri’s plan to blow up a U.S. airliner around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death was foiled when an AQAP member who volunteered for the suicide mission turned out to be a double agent and handed the master bombmaker’s latest, improved version of an underwear explosive over to the FBI.
Al-Asiri’s bomb designs are growing ever more ingenious the longer he remains at large. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado in mid-July, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole said the 2012 version of the underwear bomb showed three dangerous innovations that made it more reliable and harder to detect than its predecessors. First, al-Asiri had used a new type of explosive “that we had never seen,” Pistole said, and that no machine or dog had been calibrated or trained to detect. Second, the bomb had a “double initiation system” using two syringes of chemical detonators, instead of one, like the Christmas Day bomb that failed. Finally, al-Asiri encased the bomb in common caulk to limit the explosive vapors that scanners might detect, Pistole said. “We’re dealing with a determined enemy who is innovative in his design, construction, concealment and deployment of improvised explosive devices,” Pistole said.
Government officials say al-Asiri’s bomb plots are behind many of the security measures that have inconvenienced travelers in—and to—the U.S. and raised protests from civil libertarians. The TSA’s use of body scanners that show a person effectively naked was intended to thwart al-Asiri’s underwear bombs. His printer-cartridge bombs increased pressure on the cash-strapped U.S. air-forwarding industry to screen all cargo on inbound international passenger planes after it had already spent hundreds of millions to screen all domestic passenger planes’ cargo. The Obama Administration has alarmed some on the right and the left by killing three American citizens and dozens of Yemeni civilians in drone strikes while hunting al-Asiri and other AQAP leaders. And in an effort to find the source who leaked details of the May 2012 plot to the Associated Press, the Department of Justice pushed the limits of its investigative powers to secretly obtain call records for thousands of calls made by the AP.
Now that al-Qaeda’s original leaders are dead, captured or in hiding, the movement has dissolved into dozens of local cells scattered across the world. U.S. counterterrorism officials are debating whether to go after smaller al-Qaeda affiliates and which post-9/11 powers to use when they do. Targeting local groups could stop an ambitious cell before it gets big enough to be a threat to the U.S., but it could also mobilize terrorists who might otherwise focus on local enemies, not Americans. There is no such debate in the Administration over whether to go after al-Asiri. “He’s the main guy,” says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “He’s the top of any list.”
Evolution of a Threat
Al-Asiri started life as an ordinary member of Saudi Arabia’s middle class. His father Hassan served in the Saudi military for more than 40 years and settled with his family in the comfortable eastern Riyadh neighborhood of al-Jazirah. Ibrahim was born in April 1982 and grew up with four brothers and three sisters. “They were not religious boys,” his mother told al-Watan, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest newspapers. “They used to listen to music and had a wide variety of friends.” After one of the brothers was killed in a car accident, family members say, Ibrahim and his younger brother Abdullah became more religious. “They started swapping videotapes and cassettes on the mujahedin in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and they became at times distant,” one of the sisters told al-Watan. The boys began going to “preaching camps” and became preoccupied with the idea of jihad, the family said. Eventually Ibrahim attended the King Saud University and began studying chemistry.
Al-Asiri’s radicalization became manifest at the onset of the war in Iraq. Abandoning university exams after the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, he tried to join a militant anti-American group there, his family told Saudi media. Saudi officials arrested him on his way, and he served nine months in prison. That only further served to radicalize him, apparently. Al-Asiri later said in an al-Qaeda publication that while in prison, “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.” On his release, al-Asiri tried to start his own jihadist cell to overthrow the Saud royal family. Police raided his hideout in 2006, killing six of his colleagues. That August, he and his brother Abdullah fled to Yemen.
There, al-Asiri joined a group of Yemeni and Saudi radicals intent on making war with the governments of both countries and on attacking the U.S. Some, like AQAP’s deputy leader Saeed al-Shihri and a midlevel member, Jabir al-Fayfi, had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the months after 9/11 and taken to Guantánamo Bay. Al-Shihri and al-Fayfi were released to Saudi custody by the Bush Administration in 2006 and 2007 and put through a re-education program. Eventually the radical groups they and al-Asiri belonged to merged to form AQAP. In 2009, AQAP began to plan its first attack. Ibrahim and Abdullah al-Asiri were at the heart of it.
Al-Shihri decided to target the then Saudi deputy minister for security affairs, Prince Mohammed bin Naif, according to an interview al-Fayfi gave in late 2010 after he defected back to Saudi Arabia. Ibrahim made the bomb, al-Fayfi said, and it was here that al-Asiri’s combination of skills first showed their true menace. Al-Asiri’s training as a chemist made it easy for him to produce the primary explosive, PETN: recipes are widely available on the Internet, and the raw materials are not difficult to buy. But al-Asiri’s imagination and ruthlessness were what made his bomb truly dangerous. With no metal parts and hidden in the bomber’s underpants, it would be nearly undetectable by conventional scanners. Worn by his younger brother Abdullah, it would be assured delivery.
At al-Shihri’s bidding, Abdullah arranged to meet face to face with Prince Mohammed on the pretense that the younger al-Asiri wanted to defect. The prince flew him on his personal jet from Yemen to Saudi Arabia for the meeting. When Abdullah entered the room and approached the prince, he triggered his brother’s bomb and blew himself literally to bits. But his body absorbed most of the blast, and the prince was only slightly wounded.
Within Days of the attempt, U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan flew to Saudi Arabia to consult with Prince Mohammed and to learn about the new kind of bomb that had been used. At first it was thought Ibrahim had concealed the bomb inside his brother’s body, but U.S. and Saudi intelligence now believe it was the first version of the underwear bomb.
Al-Asiri deployed the second version within months, this time strapped to a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Abdulmutallab had been radicalized in Nigeria, then had studied Arabic in Yemen and found his way into AQAP circles there. With a Nigerian passport and no known ties to radicals, he was a perfect choice for al-Asiri’s next attempt. But when Abdulmutallab tried to set off his bomb on the Detroit-bound flight, it only partly ignited, burning him but failing to explode. It’s still not clear whether the bomb failed or whether Abdulmutallab made an error in trying to set it off. Either way, he was taken into custody on landing in Detroit and has since provided U.S. investigators with details of AQAP’s activities. The bomb yielded a positive fingerprint for al-Asiri.
At this point President Obama himself became focused on al-Asiri. First he ordered Brennan to figure out how the Christmas Day plot had gone undetected. In early 2010, Brennan reported that the U.S. could have uncovered the plot with better “correlation of data.” In other words, the threat was there for counterterrorism officials to see—for instance, Abdulmutallab’s father had tried to bring his son’s radicalization to the attention of the U.S. embassy in Nigeria—but they didn’t know where to look. In response, the President mobilized countermeasures. First, the TSA increased the number of backscatter scanners it was using from 40 in 19 airports to 385 in 68 airports in under a year. The President instructed 10 different agencies to take steps to address the threat, including ordering the Director of National Intelligence to accelerate “database integration, cross-database searches and the ability to correlate biographic information with terrorism-related intelligence.”
But al-Asiri and AQAP were adapting too. In late October 2010, AQAP mailed two printer cartridges to a synagogue and a Jewish center in Chicago from international courier offices in Sana’a. The powdered ink in them had been replaced with powdered explosives. Using cell-phone parts as timers, al-Asiri set the bombs to go off as the planes carrying them in their holds approached the city. The plot was foiled by the defector al-Fayfi, who provided the packages’ tracking numbers to Saudi officials, who in turn passed them on to Brennan. Officials in the U.K. and the UAE pulled the packages off FedEx and UPS planes. But al-Asiri’s bombs were so well designed that even when the officials pulled the printer cartridges out of the packages they could not detect them. In one case a bomb-sniffing dog failed to alert on the bomb. Only after U.S. officials told their foreign counterparts to go back and look again was the U.K. bomb discovered.
Again the U.S. stepped up its response. The Pentagon had launched four drone strikes in Yemen in 2010, killing 10 AQAP militants and six civilians; in 2011 it bumped it up to 10 strikes, killing 81 AQAP militants and, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks credible media reports of U.S. drone strikes, no civilians. One of those killed in September 2011 was the U.S.-born cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Killed two weeks later at an outdoor restaurant in southern Yemen was al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American. For a few months in late 2011, the U.S. thought it might have killed al-Asiri and al-Shihri in those attacks, but now they believe the two went to ground. In early 2012, AQAP published a video claiming it had executed three Yemenis suspected of having placed tracking chips on vehicles that allowed them to be targeted by American drones. U.S. hopes of finding al-Asiri dwindled, but he remained active.
In April 2012, Obama was briefed on a top-secret mission to thwart the latest al-Asiri plot. Recruited by British and Saudi intelligence, a double agent had penetrated AQAP. The agent had been given a British passport by his handlers to make him especially attractive to al-Asiri, since it would allow the agent to more easily board a U.S.-bound plane. Over several months, the agent followed the footsteps of Abdulmutallab and made his way closer and closer to al-Asiri. In May he received from al-Asiri the newly designed underwear bomb and instructions “to get on a plane from a safe airport,” says Pistole, and to “blow himself up over the U.S.”
In late April, as the anniversary of bin Laden’s death approached, the AP reported that U.S. officials thought al-Asiri and AQAP were at work again. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no known credible threats of terrorist attacks associated with the anniversary. On May 7, the AP reported the thwarted plot, and the issue became an election-year scandal. At first the Administration was accused of trying to play down the threat, and Brennan and others said publicly that no Americans had been at risk. Within weeks, Obama’s 2008 rival, John McCain, was making the opposite charge, accusing the Administration of intentionally leaking information about the plot to bolster Obama’s political prospects. Ultimately the response to this latest AQAP bomb plot came in the U.S.: on June 9, 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that U.S. attorney Ronald Machen would investigate the leak of the latest underwear-bomb plot to the AP.
Lessons of the Hunt
The hunt for al-Asiri has been enormously successful by one measure: AQAP is foundering and on the run. It has lost its safe haven in Abyan province and elsewhere in Yemen. Reports from the region quoted tribal leaders as saying that after al-Shihri’s death, the group’s remaining leaders feared they were in imminent danger from U.S. infiltrators.
Some of that success has come from the 71 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, which the Long War Journal says have killed 349 militants and 82 civilians over 11 years. Some has come from human intelligence. Saudi officials may have contributed to al-Asiri’s radicalization during his time in prison, but the kingdom’s re-education program has produced two important AQAP defectors, one who stopped the cargo-bomb plot and another who provided details of al-Asiri’s operations.
Already some counterterrorism officials are looking past al-Asiri for how to address al-Qaeda’s remaining followers. Former CIA and FBI official Philip Mudd, who oversaw the U.S. government’s daily assessment of terrorist threats, known as the threat matrix, describes the residual cells like AQAP as sparks from the comet of al-Qaedaism, potentially capable of starting a fire but also just as likely to burn out if left alone. “They pretend to be al-Qaeda, but they look to me more like … groups that are largely locally focused,” Mudd says.
That may be true for much of AQAP and for other small groups from Libya to Mali to South Asia. But it is not true of al-Asiri. The longer he is allowed to operate, the more dangerous he becomes, U.S. officials say. Not only do his designs become harder to stop, but he may also be teaching others his dangerous skills. “There is intelligence that he has unfortunately trained others, and there’s a lot of effort to identify those folks,” Pistole told the Aspen Security Forum in July. Al-Asiri’s most dangerous creation ultimately may not be a bomb but other bombmakers.