WASHINGTON — The CIA, working closely with foreign partners, thwarted a plot by the branch of al-Qaida in Yemen to smuggle an experimental bomb aboard an airliner bound for the United States, the New York Times reported Monday, citing unnamed intelligence officials.
The intelligence services detected the scheme as it took shape in mid April, the officials said, and the explosive device was seized about a week ago before it could be deployed. A suicide bomber had been chosen to wear the device under his clothes, but no airplane was ever in danger, the officials said.
It appeared that al-Qaida leaders had dispatched the would-be bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said counterterrorism officials said of the bomber: "We don't have to worry about him anymore." He is alive, officials said, but they would not say whether he is in foreign custody or where he is being held.
The disclosure was a worrisome sign that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains determined to attack the United States even after a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September killed two of its operatives who were U.S. citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share intelligence, said they believed the device was the work of the group's bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He is believed to have designed the explosives used in two previous attempts to take down airliners bound for the United States, including one on Christmas 2009.
The plot was disclosed a day after a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Fahd al-Quso, who was wanted for the bombing of the USS Cole destroyer ship in Yemen in 2000.
Though the device was seized close to the May 2 anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, the officials said they had picked up no intelligence suggesting that the plot had been timed to the 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 CIA had asked it not to publish the news immediately because the intelligence operation was still under way.
The FBI said its explosive experts were conducting "technical and forensics analysis" on the device. It was designed to escape detection at airport security, U.S. officials said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, 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.