Is Al-Qaida Dropping Clues About Planned Attacks?

May 22, 2012
Originally published on May 22, 2012 7:12 pm

Two F-15 fighter jets intercepted a US Airways plane on Tuesday and escorted it to Maine's Bangor International Airport after a passenger on board said that she was carrying an implanted device.

Authorities were concerned that the woman was carrying explosives inside her. As it turns out, the scare was a false alarm. But the episode shows just how concerned U.S. authorities are about creative bombs that terrorist groups could be smuggling onto planes.

Tuesday's scare comes just weeks after a foiled al-Qaida plot to sneak explosives onto a U.S.-bound plane.

In that case, officials were tipped off by a British agent who had penetrated al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The group gave the agent a suicide mission and its latest bomb technology — an advanced underwear bomb that improved on the group's 2009 model that malfunctioned aboard a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit three Christmases ago.

Officials are now looking back to see if al-Qaida's arm in Yemen might have left some clues about plots against the U.S. If there is one thing that has been consistent about al-Qaida, it has been its constant taunting of the West — and the hints of future operations it provides in its videos and publications.

Bin Laden's Clues

The most famous example involved Osama bin Laden.

In a 1998 interview with ABC News, he explained why he was waging a holy war against the United States. He was sitting in front of a map of East Africa — but it became clear only later that he was sending a message.

"That interview preceded the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa later that year," says Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. "What bin Laden was attempting to do was establish the notion that he was in control, and that when those attacks occurred he could point back and say look, 'I knew what was going on, and we had a big master plan from the very beginning.' "

Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, AQAP, has ripped a page out of bin Laden's playbook and has hinted at its plans as well. In the fall of 2010, in an issue of Inspire magazine, the group's online publication, there was a photograph of the Chicago skyline, with no caption.

A month later, AQAP tried to send to package bombs to synagogues in Chicago. The plot — like the one earlier this month — was foiled by someone inside the group.

"Of course there is always the danger in work and research like this of reading too much into too little. But there have been some tantalizing clues with regard to what AQAP itself puts out," says Gregory Johnson, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.

Hints In Online Magazine

This time, those tantalizing clues appeared in the latest issue of Inspire.

In one essay, a member of AQAP wrote that the group had gained access to chemicals stored in military labs in southern Yemen, the area where government troops and al-Qaida insurgents are currently fighting. According to the essay, the group had modernized its bomb-making labs because it had its hands on this territory.

And there was more.

"AQAP almost mockingly said that they find it laughable that people in the United States think that the organization ... only has one bomb maker," says Johnson. "They almost certainly have more than that."

The bomb maker everyone is talking about is a Saudi man named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He's thought to have built the 2009 underwear bomb that a suicide bomber got onto that U.S. plane three Christmases ago.

He's also the man U.S. authorities worry has perfected a surgically implanted bomb. He sent his brother to the Saudi intelligence chief several years ago laden with a body bomb. But the explosive killed only the bomber.

Opportunity To Train Bomb Makers

Johnson says the unrest in Yemen has undoubtedly given AQAP the opportunity to train bomb makers.

"It's quite possible and in fact, I think, likely that the organization has more than just one bomber, so there's more than one individual working on this. And now in 2012 they have much more room and much more space to build these bombs than they did in 2009 and 2010," he said.

Of course, all this taunting from al-Qaida can backfire. In the Inspire bomb-making essay, the writer boasts that the group's chief of operations, Fahd al-Quso, had been able to dodge American drones easily.

The essay said that al-Quso often went out in daylight and even conducted an interview with an Arab reporter not far from where a drone had struck in the past. That's how unafraid al-Quso was of the drone program, the magazine said.

Al-Quso was killed a couple of weeks ago in a drone strike. The targeting information is thought to have come from a British agent who had penetrated the group.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A U.S. Airways jet heading from Paris to Charlotte, North Carolina, was diverted today. That's after a passenger claimed she had a device surgically implanted in her body. There was no bomb and the plane landed safely in Maine.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The episode caused a scare, in part because it comes not long after news of an al-Qaida plot to blow up a plane that was headed to the U.S. Officials say, in that case, a British agent infiltrated the group's arm in Yemen. He was given a suicide mission and then handed the bomb over to the CIA.

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, U.S. officials are now looking back to see if al-Qaida might have left some clues about that plot before it was foiled.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: If there's one thing that's been consistent about al-Qaida, it is its constant taunting of the West. The best known example may be this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

OSAMA BIN LADEN: (Through translator) American history does not distinguish between civilians and military, not even women and children.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Osama bin Laden in a 1998 interview with ABC News. He was explaining why he was waging a holy war against the United States and he was sitting in front of a map of East Africa. It only became clear later that he was sending a message.

BRIAN FISHMAN: That incident preceded the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa later that year.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

FISHMAN: What bin Laden was attempting to do was establish the notion that he was in control and that, when those attacks occurred, he could point back and say, look. I knew what was going on and we had a big master plan from the very beginning.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has ripped a page out of bin Laden's playbook. It likes to hint at its plans, as well.

Back in the fall of 2010, in an issue of Inspire magazine, the group's online publication, there was a photograph with no caption of the Chicago skyline. A month later, AQAP tried to send package bombs to synagogues in Chicago. The plot, like the one earlier this month, was foiled by someone inside the group.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Of course, there's always the danger in work and in research like this of reading too much into too little, but there have been some tantalizing clues that have come out of what AQAP itself puts out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, and this time, those tantalizing clues appear to be in the latest issue of Inspire magazine. In one essay, a member of AQAP wrote that the group had gained access to chemicals that were stored in military labs in Southern Yemen, and, according to the essay, the group had modernized its bomb-making labs. And there was more, according to Princeton's Gregory Johnsen, though it's easier to spot clues after the fact.

JOHNSEN: AQAP almost mockingly said that they find it laughable that people in the United States think that the organization - that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - only has one bomb maker.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He's talking about a man named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He's thought to have built the 2009 underwear bomb that a suicide bomber got on a U.S. plane three Christmases ago. Johnsen says that, while al-Asiri has long been the group's premier bomb maker, the unrest in Yemen has undoubtedly given AQAP the opportunity to train others.

JOHNSEN: It's quite possible and, in fact, I think likely that the organization has more than just one bomber, so there's more than one individual working on this and now, in 2012, they have much more room and much more space to build these bombs than they did in 2009 and 2010.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, all this taunting can backfire. In the bomb-making essay, the writer boasts that the group's chief of operations - his name was Fahd al-Quso - had been able to dodge American drones. The essay said that al-Quso often went out in daylight and even conducted an interview with an Arab reporter not far from where a drone had struck in the past. That's how unafraid al-Quso was of the drone program, the magazine said.

Of course, al-Quso was killed a couple of weeks ago in a drone strike. The targeting information is thought to have come from the British agent who had penetrated the group.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.