ABC News’ Pierre Thomas reports:
The U.S. government is highly concerned that 30-year-old Ibrahim al-Asiri, the man behind al Qaeda’s latest attempt to bring a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound plane, has been actively training a new wave of bombmakers and that these disciples, schooled by al Qaeda’s chief bombmaker, have fanned out to develop their own plots at times and locations of their choosing, ABC News has learned.
“Asiri is trying to train as many people as he can, that’s what has us concerned,” a high ranking official briefed on the new development told ABC News. The new intelligence was the focus of high-level briefings Tuesday in Washington.
An administration official confirmed our reporting saying, “Asiri does appear to be training others so that, if he is taken off the battlefield, his expertise will not be lost. He is not the only bomb maker in AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) to worry about.”
Officials are concerned that 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.
In the latest foiled plot, the bomb that was delivered to intelligence agents by a double agent posing as a suicide bomber was described by officials as an upgrade to the underwear bomb used three years ago in a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner. The agent who successfully infiltrated the al Qaeda bomb cell was working for a non-U.S. agency, officials told ABC News.
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.
Asiri, ABC News has learned, has stepped up training of bombmakers in the last year, in part because of increased operations targeting senior al Qaeda leadership in Yemen. Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone last fall. Asiri is now apparently concerned that he will be captured or killed as well.
“It’s the spaghetti effect, they’re are hoping to throw enough on the wall that something sticks,” said a source who has been privy to high-level briefings.
The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, is known for its ideological purity and for carefully screening its recruits. Yet, in the latest plot, a double agent was able to infiltrate the organization, posing as a suicide bomber, and then deliver the bomb to intelligence agents instead of carrying the device onto a U.S.-bound plane. 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.
Sources tell ABC News that Asiri wants as many bombmakers out there as possible. His plan is that the more bombmakers there are, the more plots there will be and the more potential for success. Another concern is that this generation of Al Qaeda recruits “looks like the kid next door,” the source said, and would not show up on any terrorism watch list.
Asiri’s desire to see his deadly legacy continue even if he’s neutralized has prompted an urgent effort by U.S. intelligence officials to identify and locate Asiri’s disciples.
ABC News’ Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz and Richard Esposito contributed reporting.