The race to catch al-Qa'ida's master bomber Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the Yemen-based terrorist schemer who specialises in exploding underwear, is at the top of the CIA's hit list

America likes nothing better than putting a name and a face to the Islamic terrorist threat. First, there was Osama bin Laden, until he was killed in Pakistan; then Anwar al-Awlaki, internet recruiter to al-Qa'ida's cause, until he was killed by a US drone attack in Yemen last September. There remains Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks, currently on trial for his life in a courtroom at Guantanamo Bay. But now there's a new pubic enemy Number One: Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, al-Qa'ida's bomb-maker in Yemen.

Yesterday, a grainy photo of Asiri was being shown again and again on US television, as the country pondered the implications of the new plot for a suicide bomber to blow up an airliner over the US, hatched in the Yemen but broken up by the CIA and its foreign intelligence allies a fortnight ago. This time, apparently, the public was never at risk. No date or flight had been selected for the operation, while the alleged would-be bomber, whose identity has not been disclosed, is either in custody or dead.

But the affair has glaring similarities with an attack that almost did succeed, the "underwear bombing" attempted on Christmas Day 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He was a Nigerian student recruited by Awlaki and trained in Yemen for his mission, and was a passenger on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam as it was making its approach to Detroit with 290 people on board.

Fortunately, the device concealed in Abdulmutallab's underpants failed to explode properly – and it is unclear whether the 80 grams of pentaerythritol tetranitrate or PETN (a relative of nitroglycerine used in Semtex and one of the most powerful explosives known) would have been enough to bring down the plane if it had detonated fully. Beyond doubt, however, the episode was a close run thing. Almost certainly the Saudi-born Asiri was as involved in that plot as he was in the latest one.

He has the track record. Four months before Flight 253, in August 2009, his younger brother, Abdullah, died while trying to assassinate Saudi Arabia's anti-terrorism chief, Mohammed bin Nayef, in a suicide bombing, with a concealed device. That bomb did go off, but Abdullah's body shielded his Saudi target from the worst of the blast. Ibrahim Asiri is also believed to have made the bombs hidden in two packages which were found on separate US-bound cargo planes in Dubai and Britain in October 2010. Those planes too, investigators said, were meant to blow up in mid-air close to American cities.

This latest scheme, according to reports yesterday, was foiled by a tip from a Saudi infiltrator into a terrorist cell. But it underscores how AQAP, as al-Qa'ida's operation in the Arabian Pensinsula is known, is the terrorist group's most active affiliate – and the one that preoccupied Bin Laden, if the correspondence from his lair in Abbottabad, released here last week, is any guide.

The public disclosure of the conspiracy came 24 hours after Fahd al-Quso, a senior figure in AQAP with a $5m (£3.1m) price on his head, was killed by a US drone strike. Indeed, some analysts here believe, the unmasking of the bomb plot and the elimination of al-Quso were part of the same operation. On President Obama's orders, the US has stepped up drone attacks in Yemen as well as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan war zone. In the former, Ibrahim Asiri is now surely top of the CIA's hit list.

Given the evident success of the drones in helping to decimate al-Qa'ida's ranks, not to mention the Yemeni government's stepped-up campaign against al-Qa'ida since the departure of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in November 2011, Asiri's life expectancy may not be long.

But even his death would not end the threat posed by AQAP. Awlaki may have been "taken out", but that did not stop the organisation from taking advantage of Yemen's protracted political instability to take control of great swathes of the country, which they retain today. And while one bomb plot may have been scotched, there is no guarantee that more bombs and plots do not exist. Asiri for his part has reputedly trained successors in his dark arts.

And these arts are getting even darker. The captured device is now being picked apart at the FBI research centre at Quantico, Virginia, but undoubtedly is more sophisticated than the bomb carried by Abdulmutallab. By all accounts it contains little or no metal, making it harder to detect. Whether it would have been picked up by an X-ray system or the body scanners in place at US airports is a matter of dispute. However, it would not have passed through airport security in the US but in a foreign country, where standards could be laxer. It is possible too that al-Qa'ida is seeking to surgically implant a bomb into a "martyr", that would be even more difficult to detect.

Meanwhile, the foiled bomb attempt is generating political heat in Washington over whether word of it was leaked deliberately. Elections are approaching, and as Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday: "In a political season, funny things happen."

The story was obtained exclusively by The Associated Press news agency, which delayed publication at the request of the Obama administration. Is it stretching cynicism too far to imagine that an official might have leaked information to burnish an unexpected strength taken by a Democratic President into his campaign – his record on combating terrorism?

But such a ploy would be highly risky. Partisan controversy could create a distraction allowing a bomber to slip through – and nothing would be more damaging to an incumbent seeking a second term than a deadly terrorist attack in America's skies. The last thing this White House wants is to drop its guard. As John Brennan, Mr Obama's counter-terrorism adviser put it yesterday: "You never know what you don't know."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015