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Security unchanged after new plane bomb

09 May 2012, 08:26

Washington - Despite the discovery of a sophisticated new al-Qaeda airline bomb plot, US congressional and security officials suggested no immediate need on Tuesday to change to airport security procedures, which already subject shoeless passengers to intrusive pat-downs and body scans.

The CIA, with help from a well-placed informant and foreign intelligence services, conducted a covert operation in Yemen in recent weeks that disrupted a nascent suicide plot and recovered a new bomb, US officials said.

Officials said the bomb represents an upgrade over the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jet over Detroit on 25 Dec 2009. 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.

FBI experts are picking apart that non-metallic device to see if it could have slipped through security and taken down an aircraft.

Meanwhile, US officials sought to reassure the public that security measures at airports are strong. They said there are no immediate plans to subject airline passengers to new security screenings.

"I think people getting on a plane today should feel confident that their intelligence services are working, day in and day out," John Brennan, the top counter-terrorism adviser to President Barack Obama, said on ABC television's Good Morning America.

Just last winter, al-Qaeda's Yemen branch boasted that it had obtained a supply of chemicals used to make bombs. Chemicals can eliminate the need for electrical equipment to detonate explosives.

"Hence, no wearisome measures are taken anymore to attain the needed large amount of chemicals for explosives," the group wrote in its online magazine, Inspire.

Working with an informant close to al-Qaeda in Yemen, the CIA caught wind of the bomb plot last month, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

No longer of concern

The would-be bomber was supposed to buy a plane ticket to the United States and detonate the bomb inside the country, officials said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Monday night that she had been briefed about an "undetectable" device that was "going to be on a US-bound airliner".

Before the bomber could choose his target or buy his ticket, however, the CIA swooped in and seized the bomb.

The fate of the would-be bomber remains unclear. Representative Peter King, the Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN on Tuesday that White House officials told him "He is no longer of concern", a point Brennan echoed on a round of appearances Tuesday on television news shows.

"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," Brennan said.

The plot was a reminder of the ambitions of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the most active and dangerous branch of the terrorist group. While al-Qaeda's core in Pakistan has been weakened over the past decade, instability in Yemen has allowed an offshoot group to thrive and set up training camps there. In some parts of the country, al-Qaeda is even the de facto government.

Though analysis of the device is incomplete, US security officials said they remained confident in the security systems that were in place.

"These layers include threat and vulnerability analysis, pre-screening and screening of passengers, using the best available technology, random searches at airports, federal air marshal coverage and additional security measures both seen and unseen," Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Matthew Chandler said.

"The device did not appear to pose a threat to the public air service, but the plot itself indicates that these terrorists keep trying to devise more and more perverse and terrible ways to kill innocent people," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a news conference in New Delhi with Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna.

Nearly successful

It is not clear who built the bomb, but because of its sophistication and its similarity to the Detroit bomb, authorities suspected it was the work of master bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri or one of his students.

Al-Asiri constructed the first underwear bomb and two others that al-Qaeda built into printer cartridges and shipped to the US on cargo planes in 2010.

Both of those bombs used a powerful industrial explosive. Both were nearly successful.

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 senior al-Qaeda leader, was killed 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 $5m reward for information leading to his capture. He was indicted in the US for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the harbour of Aden, Yemen, 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 strike last year.

The new Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has promised improved co-operation with the US to combat the militants. On Saturday, he said the fight against al-Qaeda was in its early stages. Hadi took over in February from long-time authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

- AP


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