U.S. and European officials say that even though an al Qaeda bomber was stopped before he could board a plane for the U.S., the threat is far from over -- there are believed to be several other would-be bombers with similar non-metallic devices that could get through most airport security screening.
Federal officials confirmed today that the U.S., working with other intelligence agencies, recovered an explosive device that resembles other bombs manufactured by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They described it as a refinement of the so-called underwear bomb with which AQAP recruit Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down Northwest flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The plot was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, but the bomber was apprehended before he could purchase plane tickets or choose a U.S.-bound flight.
As ABC News first reported last week, the plot led the U.S. to order scores of air marshals to Europe to protect U.S.-bound aircraft. Flights out of Gatwick Airport in England received 100 percent coverage, according to U.S. officials.
Authorities say no flights were ever actually in danger.
"The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control," said Dick Clarke, an ABC News consultant and former White House counter-terror advisor. "Which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen."
The plot was being run by the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, where the CIA and a second intelligence service had their insider. The would-be bomber was under surveillance for some time before his bomb was seized by intelligence agents.
As ABC News detailed last week, al Qaeda bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri was again the mastermind of the plot, according to U.S. and other intelligence sources. Asiri designed the bombs in the failed printer-bomb cargo plane plot of 2009 and earlier planted a bomb in the rectum of his brother, who died in a suicide attack on the Saudi intelligence chief. He also made Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb, which failed to detonate properly. The latest bomb, according to authorities, was an improved version of Abdulmutallab's bomb.
The new bomb that was intercepted had what is being called "a highly refined detonation system" and is now being examined by FBI bomb technicians.
Said Clarke, "What we know is that the bomb contained no metal parts and therefore would not normally have been detected by some of our security detectors, and it was apparently something that was going to be carried onto the plane on the body, not in the body, of the suicide bomber."
"The FBI currently has possession of the IED and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it," said the FBI in a statement. "Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to [bombs] that have been used previously by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks."