The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief bomb maker was killed in a drone strike in late 2017 in Marib. If this is true, the world’s aviation sector is a little safer today than it was before, as Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri was always seeking innovative ways to target aviation. Attached is an article I wrote in 2013 on this terrorist entitled, A Thorn in Their Throats-Ibrahim Hassan al-Siri Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Bomb Maker in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was born from the fruits of a poisonous merger between Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In 2009, when AQAP announced this merger, Al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri issued an audio statement in which he hoped this merger would be more than a “thorn in the throats of the Crusaders and their agents like the house of Saud and Ali Abdullah Saleh.” Since that time Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bomb maker has been a sharp thorn and has put the world on notice with his innovative bomb-making skills.
Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 18, 1982. Ibrahim grew up in a traditional middle-class Saudi family with four brothers and three sisters in the shadow of the El Hadji Mosque in the al-Jazirah District of Riyadh. His father, Hassan Al-Asiri served and retired as an officer in the Saudi military. Ibrahim attended King Saud University for two years where he studied chemistry. With the death of Ibrahim’s older brother Ali in a car accident, Ibrahim and his brother Abdullah became more devout.
In 2003, Ibrahim was arrested while trying to enter Iraq to join Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was held in a Saudi prison for nine months and then released to his family’s custody. Nine months isn’t much time for a terrorist who wanted to wage jihad against Americans in Iraq. Rather than punish, the Saudi emphasis was focused on getting jihadists to repent, rehabilitate, and reintegrate into Saudi society. Al-Asiri would later take full advantage of the Saudi’s softer approach to rehabilitation. Armed with this knowledge he would use this Saudi policy to target the official in charge of Counterterrorism and Rehabilitation programs in the Kingdom. After prison, Ibrahim operated under the kunya-Abu Salah, when he became part of an al-Qaeda affiliated cell in Saudi Arabia. Al-Asiri participated in the bombing of oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. With his safe house compromised after a raid, Ibrahim and his younger brother fled south seeking refuge in Yemen. There he met with Nasir al-Wahayshi, who had recently escaped from the Sanaa Political Security Prison. Al-Wahayshi along with 22 other Al Qaeda prisoners to include Hizam Saleh Ali Majali, Qasim al-Raymi, and Muhammad al-Umda tunneled out. Al-Wahayshi had been Osama bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan for four years. He escaped from Tora Bora in December 2001 but was arrested en route to Iran. Ibrahim Al-Asiri has become the primary bomb maker for AQAP and perhaps one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist. While some have described Al-Asiri as an evil genius, he is only one of about a dozen AQAP leaders that combined make AQAP very dangerous. What Al-Asiri has done is to expand the boundaries of bomb-making by combining his technical skills with imagination, sophistication, and deception.
Ibrahim al-Asiri came to light when his brother Abdullah carried his handiwork, a creative PETN bomb that would be concealed in his groin area in an attempt to assassinate a member of the Saudi royal family. While some have suggested that Abdullah concealed the bomb in his rectum that was not the case. Internal cavity devices have not been perfected as of yet but this is a concern for the future. Rather this was one of the first prototypes of his groin/underwear bomb. Since the target was a member of the Saudi royal family the attempted assassination plot needed to use a Saudi suicide bomber. The target for this attack would be Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who headed up all Counterterrorism efforts and Rehabilitation programs for terrorists in the Kingdom. For such an important target, Ibrahim al-Asiri would build a different type of bomb for the suicide bomber. He would use his knowledge of Arab customs and cultural taboos against the security designed to protect a member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. The bomb would have no metal and would be hidden in the groin area of the suicide bomber. He knew there was a high level of success since the security would rely on metal detectors and would not closely check a repentant terrorist surrendering to the Crown Prince. Ibrahim al-Asiri is dangerous because he adapts his bombs to defeat the security. While it is important to understand Ibrahim al-Siri’s background, it is more important to understand the evolution of the bombs and the operational methodology he utilizes. Ibrahim al-Asiri not only built a bomb to thwart security but utilized his brother, Abdullah as the suicide bomber. Abdullah would be able to entice the Saudis to allow him to get close enough to the Crown Prince, dangling hope that he might be able to convince his brother, the number one wanted terrorist in Saudi Arabia to surrender.
On August 27, 2009, Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, used deception and feigned his surrender as a repentant terrorist to Prince Nayef. A number of al-Qaeda terrorists had personally surrendered to Prince Nayef and had entered the Kingdom’s rehabilitation programs. Prince Nayef had sent an aircraft to Yemen to bring Abdullah al-Siri back to Saudi Arabia. The Prince was hoping that Abdullah’s surrender might lead to his brother’s surrender. Two top terrorists on Saudi Arabia’s Most Wanted List surrendering and entering the Kingdom’s rehabilitation program would silence the program’s critics. After flying to Jeddah, the suicide bomber passed through metal detectors and was admitted to the Prince’s Palace. Prince Nayef was only slightly injured when the bomb detonated. Even though this attack was a failure it signaled the advent of a different type of bomb and how a terrorist group might use it to attack a protected target.
For years Palestinian terrorists have sent suicide bombers wearing underwear /groin concealed bombs to attack targets. The bulk of underwear and groin bombs carried by suicide bombers have been devices with metal components and shrapnel. But Ibrahim al-Siri has been designing his bombs to avoid detection. His devices had to be able to pass through airport-style metal detectors and visual security to reach the target undetected.
On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253 flying from Amsterdam to Detroit with 289 passengers aboard. The bomb Ibrahim al-Siri built for Abdulmutallab used Pentaerythritol (PETN) and Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) and was concealed in his underwear. Abdulmutallab was able to detonate the device and required medical attention when the aircraft land. AQAP’s master bomb maker was able to build a device that was able to defeat airport type security. What one can be sure of is that al-Asiri will seek to make corrections so that this type of device will detonate instead of causing a fire.
Finding the Achilles heel of aviation security is something Ibrahim al-Siri seems to have exploited. Al-Asiri concealed his next two bombs in laser printers. On October 29, 2010, two of his devices were found after Saudi intelligence passed along critical intelligence. AQAP had shipped the laser printer bombs using FedEx and UPS addressed to targets in the United States. The two laser printers containing the bombs had cleared airport cargo screening at several airports. Ibrahim al-Asiri was able to take advantage of lax cargo screening. Even canine dogs and x-rays didn’t find the device in London. In November 2010, AQAP issued their Inspire magazine which outlined the details of this plot titled Operation Hemorrhage. While the articles in Inspire are mainly propaganda in nature they do highlight the research that was done in preparation for this attack. The article further states that the reason FedEx and UPS were chosen was to inflict the “maximum losses to the American economy.”
Ibrahim al-Asiri was able to conceal the bombs circuits into the printer cartridge circuits and to conceal the PETN within the toner. According to the article, this operation took three months to plan and execute and cost only $4200. While AQAP clearly wanted to down these two aircraft, even its failures show an evolution in the targeting and bomb-making skills within AQAP. In April 2012, AQAP readied another explosive device to attack an aircraft on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. Thankfully, this plot was thwarted by a Saudi informant. The informant was able to bring the device out and the FBI has been able to exploit al-Asiri’s latest bomb. The unique bomb had no metal and a more improved trigger to ensure that the device would detonate, unlike his last underwear bomb.
Ibrahim al-Asiri continues to be a thorn that poses a great danger each day he is not captured or killed. Al-Asiri has taught a number of junior bomb makers who can continue these types of attacks or even design more sophisticated bombs. By passing on his bomb-making tradecraft, Al-Asiri’s handiwork will continue in the event he is captured or killed. While AQAP has shown a propensity to attack aviation and assassinate targets with suicide bombers, they can expand their attacks into other areas and other types of targets. AQAP continues to expand their targeting within the region but has always focused on targeting the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
With the recent death of Sheikh Saeed al-Shehri (Abu Sufyan al-Azdi), the deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s statements calling for AQAP to attack America, we can be certain that Ibrahim al-Asiri’s bomb-making services will be used by AQAP to press home major attacks. Individuals in this region must be on guard for an attack against their interests. Due to the types of attacks AQAP has undertaken in the past, it would not surprise anyone to see another attack on aviation aimed at the United States or even Saudi Arabia.
While travel restrictions might make it harder for terrorists to locate American targets within the country it does not solve the problem. Closing facilities buys time and reduces the footprint at a potential target but it too does not solve the problem. Rather it gives terrorists a short-term propaganda victory. Terrorists can just wait until the restrictions are lifted to conduct their operations. One of the brightest members of the Foreign Service was Ambassador Edmund Hull. Ambassador Hull served as the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 2001-2004. Ambassador Hull always believed that one needed to seize the initiative and that an Embassy was not a bunker. From a secure Embassy, U.S. Diplomats could engage the people in Yemen and enhance the region’s security and economic development.
While the recent closure of U.S. Embassies and Consulates buys time to check and improve security, it also signals a weakness of the United States. Even when the US moves all non-essential personnel from an Embassy there are always U.S. citizens who must make a decision to depart or stay. Missionaries, NGOs, relief organizations are often caught between departing and reducing services and aid to the people they assist or potentially becoming a target. As long as AQAP has terrorists and bomb makers such as Ibrahim al-Asiri, vigilance, awareness and a multi-pronged counterterrorism approach are needed until the threat has been removed.
The Terrorism Research Center (TRC) is an independent institute dedicated to the research of terrorism, conducts cutting-edge training and provides analysis and consulting services. Best known for conducting its Mirror Image: Training to Combat Terrorism, a total immersion counterterrorism training program. The TRC is “A Virginia Company With A Global Purpose.” For more information go to http://www.mirrorimagetraining.com