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."
Brennan Denied Al Qaeda Plot Last Week
White House officials said President Obama was briefed on the plot in April by his counter-terror advisor, John Brennan.
Just one week ago, Brennan denied there was any such plot. "There is not credible reporting right now that there is an active plot underway to coincide with the anniversary of the bin Laden takedown," said Brennan then.
Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney also denied the existence of a plot. "At this time we have no credible information that terrorist organizations including al Qaeda are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden's death," said Carney.
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said the White House gave the misleading information for security reasons. Said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, "I was told that no public announcement of the plot was made at the time in order to protect ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the field."
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council said, "While the President was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack."
Security was stepped up at airports across Europe and in the U.S., in a bid to outwit AQAP's master bombmaker.
"We're dealing with a dynamic adversary here who bases their actions in part on our actions," explained Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "It's not static. So they're going to try to always identify the vulnerabilities and and the work-arounds in our own system."
Officials acknowledge that security standards at some European airports are much different.
Said Cilluffo, "Keep in mind this is overseas, we we also need to recognize that some of the standards that may be in place in the United States may not be met in other countries."
In the end, this latest plot was stopped not by technology, but by good spy work, with an apparent undercover spy work, with an apparent undercover operative inside al Qaeda.
Said Richard Clarke, "You have to wonder if this plot was blown by someone on the inside, whether or not that means the source is blown, and therefore they may no longer have someone on the inside, and would not know about the next plot."
U.S. officials say Fahd al-Quso, the head of operations for AQAP, was killed over the weekend by a U.S. drone strike. Asiri, the bombmaker, is still at large, and is believed to be training other bombmakers and making other bombs, all aimed at U.S. aircraft.