The would-be suicide bomber dispatched by the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda last month to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner was actually an agent who infiltrated the terrorist group and volunteered for the suicide mission, U.S. and foreign officials said Tuesday.
In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the agent left Yemen, travelling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his air attack and critical information on the groups leaders to the CIA, Saudi and other foreign intelligence agencies.
After spending weeks at the centre of the terrorist networks most dangerous affiliate, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the agent provided critical information that permitted the CIA to direct the drone strike Sunday that killed Fahd al-Quso, the groups external operations director and a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
He also handed over the bomb, designed by the groups top explosives expert to be invisible to airport security, to the FBI, which is analyzing its properties.
Officials would not disclose the agents identity, nationality or the intelligence service that recruited him, although they said it was not the CIA. The agent is safe in Saudi Arabia, officials said. The bombing plot was kept secret for weeks by the CIA and other agencies because they feared retaliation against the agent and his family.
Officials said Tuesday night that risk has now been mitigated, evidently by moving both the agent and his relatives to safe locations.
A senior U.S. official said the device was sewn into custom-fit underwear that would have been very difficult to detect even in a careful pat-down. Unlike the device used in the unsuccessful December, 2009, plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit, this bomb could have been detonated in two ways, in case one failed, the official said.
The main charge was high-grade military explosive that undoubtedly would have brought down an aircraft, the official said.
Over the past eight months, U.S. counterterrorism officials monitored with growing alarm a rising number of electronic intercepts and tips from informants that revealed al-Qaedas branch in Yemen was ramping up plots to attack the United States, possibly with a bomb-laden commercial airliner.
The ominous chatter followed months of political chaos in Yemen during which the al-Qaeda branch and its militant allies seized effective control over large swaths of the country, giving the terrorist group a broader base from which to plot attacks both against the Yemeni government and the United States.
New York Times News Service