On February 19, the Department of Homeland Security issued a detailed alert to major U.S. and international airlines to be on heightened alert for suicide bombers carrying sophisticated explosives onto inbound flights to the United States from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. When U.S. news outlets broke the story 24 hours later, the Department of Homeland Security refused to provide any further details. But U.S. and European security sources have provided details that conform precisely to recent warnings provided to the Senate and House intelligence committees about the threat of a wave of suicide bombings directed at American targets on U.S. soil.
The DHS alert was specific and detailed, focusing on 30 international airports, and specifically warned about passengers boarding flights bound for cities in the continental United States. At least three British airports were identified, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was also on the list.
For decades, Britain has been identified as a safe-haven for a broad range of international terrorist organizations, which have been given political asylum and even logistical and financial support by the UK government. Finsbury Park Mosque in London has been pinpointed as one prominent recruiting ground for radicals who have been sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan for military training and then sent on to battle fronts around the globe. A 2006 profile of Finsbury Park Mosque by two London Times reporters, Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory labeled the mosque as “the suicide factory.”
The U.S. alert was triggered by intercepts indicating the launching of a renewed campaign by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based branch of the organization that was singled out in the recent Global Threat Assessment by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). U.S. intelligence agencies are particularly alarmed at the growing sophistication of bomb-making by AQAP’s top explosives expert Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Now in his 30s, Saudi-born al-Asiri fled the Kingdom years ago to join Al Qaeda in Yemen, along with his brother Abdullah al-Asiri. Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri has been responsible for a series of attempts to smuggle bombs aboard flights into the US, including the failed “underwear” bomb that was discovered over Detroit in 2009. Now, U.S. authorities believe that al-Asiri has devised new techniques for concealing bomb components in clothing and even as implants. The DHS alert singled out possible female suicide bombers and provided new guidelines for carefully searching women.
Al-Asiri has been a target of American intelligence for years. In September 2011, it was rumored that he was killed in a drone attack that targeted American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. However, later, Yemeni officials who investigated the drone attack announced that al-Asiri was not among the dead. On August 10, 2013, another U.S. drone strike in Yemen targeted al-Asiri, but again he reportedly survived the targeting with some injuries.
The brother, Abdullah al-Asiri, was killed on August 27, 2009 in a failed assassination attempt against Saudi Prince Mohammed bin-Nayef. Abdullah al-Asiri posed as a member of AQAP who was seeking asylum as a defector. At the time, Prince Mohammed, who survived the attack, was the head of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism program. Now the Kingdom’s Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is playing a critical role in the international counter-terrorism campaign.
Concerns about Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri go beyond his own prowess as a bomb maker. He has now trained scores of other AQAP members in the deadly art. Since February 2009, he has been on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s list of most wanted terrorists, and the U.S. placed him in the same category several years later.