Qaeda Plot to Attack Plane Foiled, U.S. Officials Say

NY Times - By  SCOTT SHANE and ERIC SCHMITT 

WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency, working closely with foreign partners, thwarted a plot by the branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen to smuggle an experimental bomb aboard an airliner bound for the United States, intelligence officials said on Monday.

The intelligence services detected the scheme as it took shape in mid-April, officials said, and the explosive device was seized in the Middle East outside Yemen about a week ago before it could be deployed.

It appeared that Qaeda leaders had dispatched a suicide bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States with the device under his clothes, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport. Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said counterterrorism officials had said of the bomber: “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.” He is alive, officials said, but they would not to say whether he was in foreign custody.

But the disclosure was a worrisome sign that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains determined to attack the United States even after a C.I.A. drone strike in Yemen in September killed its two operatives who were American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. American officials said the group had established new training camps after seizing territory in recent months as a result of the upheaval from the Arab Spring.

Officials said they believed that the new device was the work of the group’s skilled bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who has long been a target of American counterterrorism efforts. Mr. Asiri is also believed to have designed the explosives used in two previous attempts to take down airliners bound for the United States.

The plot was disclosed a day after an American drone strike in Yemen killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, who was wanted for the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 and had replaced Mr. Awlaki as the external operations chief for the Qaeda branch. Though the device was seized close to the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda founder, officials said they had picked up no intelligence suggesting that the plot had been timed to the May 2 anniversary or motivated by revenge.

Officials would not explain the delay in revealing the plot, saying that discussing the case in too much detail could endanger counterterrorism operations.

The Associated Press, which broke the news Monday afternoon, said that it had uncovered the existence of the bomb last week, but that the White House and the C.I.A. had asked it not to publish the news immediately because the intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns had been allayed, The A.P. reported, it decided to disclose the plot despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement on Tuesday.

The F.B.I. said its explosive experts were conducting “technical and forensics analysis” on the device to understand whether it was an advance over previous bombs designed by A.Q.A.P., as the Yemen branch of the terrorist network is known. It contained no metal parts and had a different kind of detonator, designed to escape detection at airport security, American officials said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was briefed on the plot on Monday and said the bomb was “a new design and very difficult to detect by magnetometer,” the conventional type of metal detector still used in most world airports.

A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said “the sophistication of the I.E.D. is concerning,” using the abbreviation for an improvised explosive device.

The Department of Homeland Security said it had “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time.”

The latest plot underscored statements by President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, that the Yemen affiliate of Al Qaeda remains the most active and dangerous terrorist group targeting the United States.

The White House said Mr. Brennan had repeatedly briefed the president on the latest plot since its detection.

A National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, said Mr. Obama “thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand.”

On Dec. 25, 2009, a Nigerian militant trained by the Qaeda branch in Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, ignited explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a jetliner headed for Detroit, but burned only himself. In October 2010, authorities acting on a tip from Saudi Arabian intelligence found bombs packed inside computer printer cartridges en route from Yemen to Chicago; the devices were removed from cargo planes in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the East Midlands Airport in Britain.

In addition, in August 2009, a member of A.Q.A.P. blew himself up in Saudi Arabia in an unsuccessful attack against Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief.

Saudi intelligence has closely cooperated with the Obama administration in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. American officials declined to say which foreign intelligence services had helped foil the latest plot.

The senior administration official said that in contrast to the attack on Dec. 25, 2009, and the printer plot, the C.I.A. and its foreign partners had been “carefully monitoring this from early on.” While it showed that the terrorist group still intended to take down an airliner, the official suggested that American counterterrorism officials had gained the upper hand, at least for now.

“We have robust intelligence on their operations, and we killed their external operations chief on Sunday,” the official said.

Mr. King, of the Homeland Security Committee, said information on the unfolding case had been “tightly held,” without the usual briefings for members of Congress on continuing operations until Monday. He said officials “were shocked that this had gotten out” before the announcement planned for Tuesday.

A senior law enforcement official said it was unclear if the Qaeda group in Yemen had built more of the devices.

“If they built one, they probably built more,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the operation’s delicate nature. “That’s the scary part.”