The CIA, working with allied spy agencies in other countries, has apparently pulled off a real life "Mission Impossible." According to officials, a double agent disrupted al Qaeda's latest plane bomb plot by infiltrating the organization, posing as a suicide bomber, and then delivering the bomb to intelligence agents instead of carrying the device onto a U.S.-bound plane.
Details of the spy's identity are being closely held, but authorities tell ABC News he was able to actually infiltrate the bomb-making cell, learn of the plot, get his hands on a bomb, and get it out of Yemen through Saudi Arabia last week.
"It's quite an accomplishment to be able to pass yourself off as an al-Qaeda terrorist to the terrorists, when in fact you're working for a US or allied intelligence agency," said Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant and former White House counter-terrorism advisor.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, is known for its ideological purity and for carefully screening its recruits. Yet somehow, the spy agencies were able to get someone inside. The Obama administration confirmed Monday that the bomb plot, timed to the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, had been disrupted last week.
Said John Brennan, current White House counter-terror advisor, "We had confidence that we had control, that the [bomb] was not a threat, it was not an active threat at that time."
The bomb is being described today by U.S. officials as an upgrade to the underwear bomb used three years ago in a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner.
Now being studied by the FBI, this new design is described as being made with a different chemical formula, with dual detonation systems to make it easier to set off.
Said Richard Clarke, "By having the bomb in its original state, before it goes off, U.S. experts are now able to figure out how the bomb works, how it might be detected. That's a heck of a lot easier when the bomb is still intact, than after it's exploded and you're picking up pieces."
Still, there is great concern that al Qaeda's chief bombmaker, 30-year old Ibrahim al-Asiri, is working on other bomb designs, including bombs surgically implanted in terrorists, even picture frames and radios, as shown in an al Qaeda video from 2009.
"They keep trying to devise more and more perverse and terrible ways to kill innocent people," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In this case, the bomber was actually the source working for the US and others and there was no threat. But American authorities said today that as long as Asiri is alive, making other bombs for real terrorists, there remains a grave threat to the U.S.