WASHINGTON // US bomb experts are picking apart a sophisticated new Al Qaeda improvised explosive device, a top Obama administration counterterrorism official said today, to determine if it could have slipped through airport security to bring down a commercial airplane.
Officials said yesterday a discovery of the unexploded bomb represented an intelligence prize resulting from a covert CIA operation in Yemen. The discovery thwarted a suicide mission around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The device did not contain metal, meaning it could have passed through airport detectors. It is not known whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
Officials said this new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger's underwear, but this time Al Qaeda developed a more refined detonation system to that of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a plane over Detroit in December 2009.
John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said the discovery shows Al Qaeda remains a threat to US security a year after bin Laden's death. And he attributed the breakthrough to "very close cooperation with our international partners".
"We're continuing to investigate who might have been associated with the construction of it as well as plans to carry out an attack," Mr Brennan said. "And so we're confident that this device and any individual that might have been designed to use it are no longer a threat to the American people."
On the question of whether the device could have been gone undetected through airport security, Mr Brennan said it was a threat from a standpoint of the design.
He also said there was no intelligence indicating it was going to be used in an attack to coincide with the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden's death.
Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said "a number of countries" provided information and cooperation that helped foil the plot. He said he had no information on the would-be bomber, but that White House officials had told him "he is no longer of concern".
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she had been briefed about an "undetectable" device that was "going to be on a US-bound airliner."
There were no immediate plans to change security procedures at US airports.
US officials declined to say where the CIA seized the bomb. The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or purchased plane tickets when the CIA seized the bomb, officials said.
Mr Obama had been monitoring the operation since last month, the White House said yesterday evening.
Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said the president was assured the device posed no threat to the public. "The president thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand."
The operation unfolded even as the White House and Homeland Security Department assured the public that they knew of no Al Qaeda plots against the US around the anniversary of bin Laden's death.
The new underwear bomb operation is a reminder of Al Qaeda's ambitions, despite the death of bin Laden and other top leaders. With instability in the Yemeni government, the militant group's branch has gained strength and, in some provinces, operates as a de facto government.
Yesterday, Al Qaeda militants staged a surprise attack on a Yemeni army base in the south, killing 22 soldiers and capturing at least 25. The militants managed to reach the base both from the sea and by land, gunning down troops and making away with weapons and other military hardware after the blitz, Yemeni military officials said.
But the group has also suffered significant setbacks as the CIA and the US military focus more on Yemen. On Sunday,Fahd Al Quso, a top Al Qaeda leader, was hit by a missile as he stepped out of his vehicle along with another operative in the southern Shabwa province of Yemen.
Al Quso, 37, was on the FBI's most wanted list, with a US$5 million (Dh18.36m) reward for information leading to his capture. He was indicted in the US for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole harboured in Aden, in which 17 American sailors were killed and 39 injured.
Al Quso was believed to have replaced Anwar Al Awlaki as the group's head of external operations. Al Awlaki was killed in a US air raid last year.