WASHINGTON — The suicide bomber dispatched by the Yemen branch of al-Qaida last month to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner was actually an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia who infiltrated the terrorist group and volunteered for the mission, the New York Times reported Tuesday, citing unnamed U.S. and foreign officials.
In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the agent left Yemen last month, traveling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his aircraft attack and inside information on the group's leaders, locations, methods and plans to the CIA, Saudi intelligence and allied foreign intelligence agencies.
Officials said the agent, whose identity they would not disclose, works for the Saudi intelligence service, which has cooperated closely with the CIA for several years against the terrorist group in Yemen. He operated in Yemen with the full knowledge of the CIA but not under its direct supervision, the officials said.
After spending weeks at the center of al-Qaida's most dangerous affiliate, the intelligence agent provided critical information that permitted the CIA to direct the drone strike Sunday that killed Fahd al-Quso, the group's external operations director and a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, according to the officials. They spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity.
The agent also handed over the bomb, designed by the group's top explosives expert to be undetectable at airport security checks, to the FBI, which is analyzing its properties at its laboratory at Quantico, Va. The agent is now safe in Saudi Arabia, officials said.
The bombing plot was kept secret for weeks by the CIA and other agencies because they feared retaliation against the agent and his family — not, as some commentators have suggested, because the Obama administration wanted to schedule an announcement of the foiled plot, U.S. officials said .
Officials said Tuesday night that the risk to the agent and his relatives had been "mitigated," evidently by moving both him and his family to safe locations.
But U.S. intelligence officials were angry about the disclosure of the plot by al-Qaida, first reported Monday by the Associated Press, which had held the story for several days at the request of the CIA. The officials feared the leak would discourage foreign intelligence services from cooperating with the United States on risky missions, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"We are talking about compromising methods and sources and causing our partners to be leery about working with us," said King, who spoke with reporters about the plot Monday night and Tuesday after he was briefed by counterterrorism officials.
King, who called the plot "one of the most tightly held operations I've seen in my years in the House," said he was told that government officials plan an investigation to identify the source of the leak. The CIA declined to comment.
Intelligence officials believe the explosive is the latest effort of the group's skilled bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Al-Asiri is also believed to have designed the explosives used in the failed Christmas bombing of an airliner over Detroit in 2009. He's also suspected of designing the explosives that were packed into printer cartridges and placed on cargo planes in October 2010.
A senior U.S. official said the new device was sewn into underwear and would have been very difficult to detect even in a careful pat-down. Unlike the device used in the unsuccessful 2009 attack, this bomb could have been detonated in two ways, in case one failed, the official said.
The main charge was a high-grade military explosive that undoubtedly would have brought down an aircraft, the official said.
Forensic experts at the FBI's bomb laboratory are assessing whether the bomb could have evaded screening machines and security measures revamped after the failed 2009 plot. One U.S. official said the bureau's initial analysis indicated that if updated security protocols designed to detect a wider range of possible threats were properly conducted, the measures most likely would have detected the device.
On Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration repeated a security message previously sent to airlines and foreign governments. The security guidance notes that al-Qaida's branch in Yemen still intends to attack the United States, probably using commercial aviation, and warns TSA agents to look out for explosives in cargo, concealed in clothing or surgically implanted, officials said.
Over the past eight months, U.S. counterterrorism officials have monitored with growing alarm a rising number of electronic intercepts and tips from informants suggesting that the Yemen branch was ramping up plots to attack the United States.
The ominous signs followed months of political chaos in Yemen during which the branch of al-Qaida and its militant allies seized effective control over large areas of the country, giving the terrorist group a broader base from which to plot attacks against both the Yemeni government and the United States.