Al Qaeda is alive and well — in Yemen at least. U.S. authorities say they've foiled a plot by the terrorist network's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to blow up a U.S.-bound plane with an "underwear bomb." It's the second time AQAP has tried to use an underwear bomber to target an aircraft — on Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian militant linked to AQAP, tried to bring down a plane over Detroit, but his bomb fizzled. Here, five takeaways from the latest failed scheme:
1. The bomber never made it to the plane
U.S. officials insist that the would-be bomber, who has yet to be publicly identified, was apprehended with his bomb about a week ago, before he even purchased a plane ticket. The suspect was reportedly intercepted outside Yemen, though the U.S. government hasn't disclosed where he is now or what has been done to him. "We don't have to worry about him anymore," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said rather cryptically.
2. Yemen is now a central front in the war on terror
While the U.S. has been largely successful in weakening al Qaeda's pre-9/11 base in Afghanistan, AQAP has created a "zone of immunity" within Yemen, an increasingly lawless country with a weak central government, says CNN. The U.S. relies heavily on Predator drone strikes to disrupt AQAP's activities, with some success. Just this week, an American strike killed a senior AQAP leader, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, who allegedly played a role in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Quso has also reportedly been linked to the latest underwear bomb plot.
3. AQAP is creating frighteningly sophisticated bombs
U.S. technicians are currently "picking apart" the confiscated underwear bomb "to determine if it could have slipped past airport security and taken down a commercial airplane," says Adam Goldman of The Associated Press. The device reportedly contains no metal parts, and it's unclear whether the latest body scanners in U.S. airports could have detected it. John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism adviser, conceded that it "was a threat from a standpoint of the design."
4. The suspected master bomb maker is Saudi
U.S. officials say the top bomb maker is likely Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi national. Asiri is thought to have designed the Christmas Day underwear bomb, an "ingenious" device that combined everyday chemicals and an explosive powder known as PETN, which is white and odorless. Asiri is also a suspect in a 2010 plot to hide bombs inside computer printer cartridges, which were found before they reached their destination in Chicago.
5. The plot was disrupted around bin Laden's death anniversary
The suicide mission was disrupted around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, but there is reportedly no indication that the attack was meant to coincide with the anniversary. However, the plot is a reminder that it's a "tad premature" to celebrate bin Laden's death and claim that al Qaeda is on its last legs, says the New York Post in an editorial.
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