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Al-Qaida Bomb Plot: How Alarmed Should U.S. Be?

May 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A day after news broke that the CIA foiled a new al-Qaida plot to bomb an airliner, the official responses were low key on Tuesday. Margaret Warner, former National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter and former FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan assess the current reach of the terror network.

MARGARET WARNER: And, for more, we turn to Michael Leiter, who was director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2008 until the middle of last year, and Ali Soufan, a former supervisory special agent for the FBI. His cases included the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, as well as 9/11.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Michael Leiter, let me begin first with new reports today by The L.A. Times and others that in fact this plot was foiled through essentially a sting operation. There was a Saudi who posed as a would-be suicide bomber and managed to get ahold of the weapon.

Can you confirm any of that?

MICHAEL LEITER, former director, National Counterterrorism Center: I can’t confirm it, Margaret.

I would say that this is exactly what we expect and want our intelligence services to do, but it’s extremely hard to do it, essentially in a place like Yemen. It, I think, probably represents a great partnership between the U.S. government and the government of Saudi Arabia.

But this sort of information is incredibly sensitive. And I actually think it’s somewhat unfortunate that it’s been widely reported, because what it does, it reduces our ability to use these sorts of sources or this sort of methodology to exploit al-Qaida and stop future plots, which they are undoubtedly going to pursue.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Soufan, do you have any information about this, this sort of latest development?

ALI SOUFAN, former FBI interrogator: No, I agree with Mike. And I don’t think the situation at this point to divulge sources and methods.

It’s a great success for the intelligence community, great success for the CIA. And I think we had a few good days in Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Soufan, staying with you, so how alarmed should we be by this plot, either the discovery that this kind of plotting is still going on and, from what we are told, a more sophisticated device?

ALI SOUFAN: Well, I think we shouldn’t be surprised at all.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the closest to bin Laden’s version of al-Qaida. All these individuals were with bin Laden in Afghanistan, served with bin Laden. They are not one of these al-Qaida groups that were franchised after 9/11.

Those people definitely have the commitment, they have the intent. And Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bombmaker, is providing them with the capability. So they are very dangerous. And I think we should keep in mind that they will always try to accomplish their goal. I mean, al-Qaida tried to do a shoe bomb and then an underwear bomb, a printer bomb, and they will continue to work hard to inflict damage to the United States.

Fortunately, our intelligence community and the CIA have their eyes on the ball in Yemen. And it’s a great success, what they were able to do in the last 24 hours.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Leiter, let me ask you, when John Brennan said today — and I quote — this IED was a threat from the standpoint of the design, what is he talking about?

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, this bomb and also the bomb that the bombmaker, Asiri, is probably responsible for back in 2009, the first underwear bomb, and then the printer cartridges bombs that were detected in 2010 represent a real challenge for screening.

With no metal pieces at all, a standard magnetometer, a metal detector in an airport, won’t detect that. So what you have to have instead are much more advanced screening techniques at airports to actually find that. Fliers see that all the time here in the United States now. They’re less prevalent overseas.

Of course, we need to make sure that those same techniques that we know are working here are applied overseas as well. What I would also add, though, Margaret, is none of these detection methods are perfect. All of these require really good intelligence to try to penetrate the organization, screening of individuals who are applying for visas to come to the United States, screening getting onto planes.

It’s all of these pieces that fit together. None will be perfect. All will reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Soufan, back to you about AQAP and in Yemen. The way you describe them as a very potent group, what did the year of political unrest which finally ended this past spring with President Saleh leaving, what did that do to their relative strength both inside Yemen and their ability to strike at the U.S.?

ALI SOUFAN: Well, they gained a substantial amount of territory, especially in the area of South Yemen. There’s a few towns under their control.

They were able to recruit more individuals from different tribes in Yemen. And, recently, we have seen them retaliating against the Yemeni government. For instance, after Fahd al-Quso was killed in a drone, they retaliated. . .


ALI SOUFAN: On Sunday, yes.

Yesterday, they retaliated against a military base in a town called Zinjibar in Yemen, killing about 30 soldiers. So that gives you an idea about the capabilities that they have today, the weapons that they have.

And let’s not forget that many of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia, because they were defeated on the hand of the Saudi services, they escaped to Yemen. And Mr. Asiri is one of them. So is the number two guy in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shahri. Those are Saudis.

And it seems that al-Qaida now in Yemen is trying to establish some kind of sanctuary for their operations and to launch attacks against the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Leiter, what does the U.S. effort against AQAP in Yemen look like? We know about the drone strikes. What else?

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, it’s a very close partnership between the intelligence services and the government of Yemen, but, as this report suggests, also with the government of Saudi Arabia, which has been threatened by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in the past.

They threatened to kill the deputy interior minister. And, more broadly, there’s a close partnership which was disrupted for some period last year.

MARGARET WARNER: The military partnership.

MICHAEL LEITER: Exactly, the military training that’s gone on between the U.S. Department of Defense and Yemeni military services.

In the long run, it’s that sort of training enabling the Yemenis to govern especially the southern end of the country which I think is going to be so critical to maintaining some sort of stability in that country and eliminating the safe haven which unfortunately now exists.

MARGARET WARNER: Ali Soufan, back to Asiri, the bombmaker.

Tell us just a little bit about him and why, with all these resources, U.S. resources now trained on Yemen, is he so hard to apprehend?

ALI SOUFAN: Well, it is difficult when these individuals are hiding in the mountains or hiding in faraway places.

And al-Asiri is wanted not only by the United States, but he’s also wanted by the Saudis. Remember, al-Asiri recruited his own brother Abdullah as a suicide bomber in order to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy prime minister in — the deputy minister, interior minister in Saudi Arabia, using an underwear bomb, if I recall correctly.

So he’s — he’s a very dedicated individual. He’s a very evil individual. And he’s one of those people who basically were from the members of the original al-Qaida under bin Laden. He was arrested in Saudi Arabia at one point, then was released from jail. And after he was released, he was able to escape to Yemen.

And he set up a base in Yemen with other Yemeni members of al-Qaida and Saudi members of al-Qaida. I think what makes him extremely dangerous, that he provided the capability and he provides today actually the capability of a lot of our people who have so much evil intentions to be directed against the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief final question to you. To what degree is the new government in Yemen cooperative with the U.S. or of two minds?

MICHAEL LEITER: I think they’re remarkably cooperative.

And many people thought that the cooperative nature was going to reduce after Ali Abdullah Saleh left. That hasn’t been the case, just showing that this is a real partnership between a broad coalition in Yemen, and not just one link.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Leiter and Ali Soufan, thank you both.


ALI SOUFAN: Thank you.