FBI analyzing improved underwear bomb, sees signature of al Qaeda's Arabian affiliate

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri constructed the first underwear bomb used in 2009 plot, and two other devices that al Qaeda built into printer cartridges and shipped to the U.S. on cargo planes in 2010. CBS

(CBS News) The newest version of a bomb that can be hidden on a terrorist suicide bomber intending to down an airliner is now at the FBI's laboratory at Quantico, Va. being examined by bomb technicians in the Explosive Section.

The efforts that led to the recovery of the device before it could be smuggled onto a plane were a joint effort involving the CIA and other U.S. and international intelligence agencies that unfolded quietly over a period of weeks.

"The recovery of the device was a team sport. It is another example of outstanding international counterterrorism cooperation," a senior U.S. official told CBS News. The official said that at no time was any airplane or airline passenger in danger from the plot.

"We disrupted this plot well before it was ever a threat to the United States," the official said.

The new bomb -- with modified features meant to improve on the device that failed to blow up onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 -- is believed to be the work of Ibrahim al-Asiri, the top explosive expert for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

CIA thwarts new al Qaeda underwear bomb plot

"AQAP is the responsible group here. We believe AQAP produced the device, and we believe it was intended to be used by a suicide bomber on an aircraft," said the U.S. official.

Bomb technicians looked at the device that was seized and said it had the hallmarks and signature of previous devices made by AQAP. Sources told CBS News the bomb was designed to avoid detection at metal detectors.

"The device and the plot are consistent with what we know about AQAP's plans, intentions, and capabilities. They remain committed to striking targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the homeland, and Europe," the official said. "And AQAP is probably feeling pressure to conduct a successful attack to, from their perspective, avenge the deaths of bin Laden and Awlaki."

AQAP, intelligence officials say, was given the assignment by al Qaeda's front office in Pakistan to take over the lead in executing a plot against the United States and Great Britain. The lead was given to the Yemen based al Qaeda affiliate after al Qaeda in Pakistan came under siege from drone strikes that killed key leaders and operators.

At the same time, AQAP has been at war with the government in Yemen, seizing towns and patches of territory in the country's tribal regions.

A U.S. official said that has allowed AQAP to grow in size and influence.

"It is our assessment that the threat form AQAP is growing due to the territorial gains the group made during the political standoff in Yemen that lasted from early 2011 until this past February," the official said. "Those territorial gains have allowed the group to establish additional training camps."

The FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Exploitation Center will examine the new device and try to develop information that can be shared with airport screeners around the world.

"We are confident that the study of the device will yield valuable insights that will aid us in adapting security practices and counterterrorism operations here and abroad," a senior U.S. official said.

  • John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.

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