The uncertainty following the recent spate of airstrikes and attacks stems partly from the difficulty of media reporting in Yemen's remote areas, where reporters are at risk of being kidnapped or killed, and partly from the history of misinformation and disinformation that tends to thrive in Yemen. For example, several senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula figures have mistakenly been declared dead in past airstrikes, including the group's leader Nasir al-Wahayshi, their military commander Qasim al-Raymi and al-Asiri.
Now, al-Asiri is again rumored to be dead. Some reports appear to validate suspicions that a high-value target was killed in the attacks, including those suggesting two victims were removed by helicopter from the site of their deaths. Neither the U.S. nor Yemeni authorities would go through that kind of trouble to recover the body of a low-level fighter for DNA testing and identification.
Creativity and Audacity
The response to the rumors of al-Asiri's death has been very interesting. For example, journalist Iona Craig, who lives in Sanaa, wrote on Twitter: "Ibrahim al-Asiri is (was?) arguably the world's most famous bomb-maker. Yet he's failed to blow up anyone but his own brother." Seth Jones of RAND tweeted, "AQAP has redundant bomb-making capabilities. Killing Ibrahim al-Asiri, one possible recent target, is unlikely to have a long-term impact."
On the one hand, both of these informed observers are correct. Al-Asiri has failed at every transnational attack he has attempted, including the September 2009 assassination attempt against Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the botched December 2009 attempt to destroy Northwest Airlines 253 over Detroit and the thwarted November 2010 parcel bombing plot. On the other hand, they fail to recognize that al-Asiri was not just responsible for devices used in transnational attacks. The vehicle bombs, sticky bombs, suicide vests and roadside bombs he constructed for use in Yemen were responsible for a great number of deaths.
Moreover, what set al-Asiri apart from other bombmakers was his creativity and audacity. He was willing and able to think big and design innovative explosive devices to accomplish those big goals. As Stratfor has noted in the past, there are two general types of bombmakers: technicians and innovators. A technician can follow instructions and assemble an explosive device based on those instructions. An innovator can create a device that is new and imaginative. To distinguish one class of bombmaker from the other, we often use the analogy of music. A musician can learn to play the saxophone, and perhaps even to mimic a jazz recording note for note. But it is quite another thing for that musician to develop the ability to improvise a masterful solo as saxophonist John Coltrane could. In music, individuals like Coltrane are rare, and in terrorism, so are revolutionary bombmakers — masters of destructive innovation who can create original improvised explosive devices capable of defeating security measures.
Obviously, from a security perspective, technicians are easier to defend against because they create devices of a known type that can be accounted for by security measures. Technicians also tend to struggle when they are not able to acquire the exact ingredients their "recipe" requires. Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi are past examples of people who received some level of bombmaking training but then struggled to construct viable explosive devices when they could not obtain the exact materials they trained with.
The innovators pose much more of a threat not only because they can work with whatever they have at hand, but also because they develop original designs not previously seen by security officers. This was a trait of al-Asiri's transnational attempts. His devices consistently circumvented existing security measures, even if they did not always function as intended.
Many observers do not realize that there is a learning curve for bombmakers, especially those who think unconventionally. It took the innovative Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, several bombing attempts before he finally became lethal. Abu Ibrahim and Abdel Basit, also known as Ramzi Yousef, also had failures with innovative bombing attempts against airliners in the Pan Am 830 and Philippine Air 434 cases, respectively. If al-Asiri is still alive, and if he continues to attempt innovative attacks, he is very likely to succeed eventually — and that success is likely to involve a spectacular attack.
To Jones' point, technicians are indeed easily replaced, especially in a place such as Yemen, where there is an abundance of military ordnance from which to fabricate explosive devices. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula undoubtedly has several members who can construct such devices. However, replacing an audacious and innovative bomb maker such as al-Asiri may be more difficult. Indeed, the arrest or deaths of innovative bombmakers such as Basit and Yahya Ayyash has made a difference in the past. For example, following Basit's February 1995 arrest, al Qaeda was not able to mount a credible bombing attack on an aircraft until the failed shoe bomb attempt against American Airlines Flight 63 on Dec. 22, 2001.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula undoubtedly will remain capable of killing people, but the loss of al-Asiri will reduce its ability to defeat robust security measures and to reach far beyond the Arabian Peninsula.