US officials say the discovery of a plot involving an improved “underwear bomb” shows militants are determined to build bombs that can pass through airport security.
The Obama administration has said that authorities in the Middle East recently seized an underwear bomb which they believe al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate had intended to give to a suicide bomber to blow up an airliner bound for the US or another Western country.
The plot was detected in its early stages, and no US airliner was ever at risk, officials said. They added, however, that it shows that the Yemen-based group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains intent on attacking the United States and its allies, and is continuing to evolve its weapons and tactics.
But an aviation journalist has told Channel 4 News that there is “no simple solution” to the terrorist threat.
David Kaminski, the air transport editor, at Flight Global said airport security is “a cat and mouse game”. He said the airlines were currently waiting to find out how aviation authorities would respond to this latest threat.
He said that many people in the industry were frustrated at security resources wasted on low-risk passengers, and thought there was a need to refine the system.
But he added: “If there was a simple solution to this we would have it in place. Short of a brain scanner that that lights up when someone has unpleasant intentions, I do not know where you’d go next.”
US officials have revealed that AQAP had also worked on designs for explosive devices which could be implanted into the body of would-be suicide bombers and there were doctors willing to perform the necessary surgery.
They said implanted bombs were more likely that those built into clothing to defeat airport security though the impact may be weaker.
One official said the latest underwear bomb appeared to be similar to the work of fugitive Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who US sources believe is a bomb-maker working with AQAP.
The FBI currently has possession of the device and is carrying out technical and forensics analysis on it.
US officials said it had design features which were somewhat more sophisticated than a bomb used in two attempted attacks in 2009.
In the first incident, a man equipped with a bomb in his underwear tried to attack Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a senior Saudi Arabian counter-terrorism official.
The bomber killed himself in the attack but its intended target survived.
On Christmas Day that year, a Nigerian-born militant who had spent time in Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate a bomb sewn into his underpants as his flight from the Netherlands to Detroit began its descent in US airspace. The device burst into flames but its explosive charge did not detonate.
Abdulmutallab was subdued by fellow passengers and was later jailed by US authorities.
A US official said the device seized in the latest investigation used what was supposed to be an improved or redesigned mechanism intended to ensure that the explosive charge detonated.
“While similar, a preliminary review of this device shows that it has some significant differences from the device used in the Christmas Day attack. It is clear that AQAP is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the causes of the failure of the 2009 device,” the official added.
Like the bombs used in the two previous attempted attacks, the latest device was non-metallic, officials said.