The CIA recently thwarted a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to destroy a U.S. airliner using an improved version of the underwear bomb that the group attempted to use to bring down a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner December 25, 2009, AP reported May 7. The 2009 attempt nearly succeeded, only failing because the device caught fire instead of detonating as intended. This version of the underwear bomb was reportedly also composed of a pentaerythritol tetranitrate main charge and used all non-metallic components. It also ostensibly fixed the design flaw that kept the first device from detonating.
The device was likely designed by Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP's innovative bombmaker who designed the underwear bomb and a similar device used in the August 2009 assassination attempt against Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. He also reportedly designed the two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) discovered hidden in printers in a failed November 2010 bombing attempt.
There is not yet any indication of how the CIA thwarted the plot, who the purported bomber is, where he is from or what flight was to have been targeted. It is important to note that while al-Asiri is a creative bombmaker with an effective design concept — and access to the raw materials he needs to build his IEDs in Yemen — he has a logistical problem, namely that he needs to get the devices out of Yemen and to a place where they can be used to target U.S. airliners. This means that U.S. authorities can search for potential operatives who could carry such devices out of Yemen and focus on them.
The most important unanswered question at this point is: Was there only one device? The underwear bomb device created by al-Asiri does not require much explosive material and would be relatively easy to produce in quantity if you could find operatives willing and able to carry the devices out of Yemen and employ them without changing their minds.
As we witness the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at Guantanamo and consider his dream of targeting multiple aircraft simultaneously, we cannot help but consider the possibility that al-Asiri and other members of AQAP are doing the same.