Abdullah Hassan al Asiri, perpetrator of the failed 27 Aug 09 suicide attack against Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and brother of Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri, assessed to be a top AQAP explosives expert and bombmaker.
As the US continues to develop a more in-depth intelligence picture of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), I wanted to provide some background on a potential high-value target who I believe serves as a key node in AQAP’s suicide bomber network. Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri is a Saudi citizen currently assessed to be living and operating in Yemen. While his name is far from commonplace among most CT experts, he is someone we definitely should have been tracking based on his assessed involvement in AQAP’s two most recent high-profile suicide attacks. I assess that Ibrahim al Asiri serves as one of AQAP’s explosives experts and bombmakers – a critical position which requires a relatively high level of technical knowledge and experience. Most terrorist networks have few individuals with the necessary skills to fill this important role, making their kill/capture very valuable in terms of degrading the network’s capability.
Ibrahim al Asiri first drew attention after being named as the #1 target on Saudi Arabia’s “Most Wanted List,” which was released to the public in February 2009 [see an English translation of the list from the Saudi Embassy here]. Some online versions of the list that I was able to find also specifically list Ibrahim al Asiri as an “explosives expert.”
While his appearance on the Saudi list is important, things really start to get interesting when you take a look at the individual listed as #40 on the same list – Abdullah Hassan Tali al Asiri. As Christopher Boucek mentions in his recent article in the CTC Sentinel, Ibrahim al Asiri (#1) is assessed to be the brother of Abdullah al Asiri (#40). This relationship is confirmed in an article from the Saudi Gazette, which provides a profile of the entire family and explains how Abdullah (the younger brother) was recruited into AQAP by his older brother, Ibrahim.
If the name Abdullah Hassan al Asiri sounds familiar to you, it should. He was the perpetrator of the failed suicide attack against Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (the lead Saudi CT official) back on 27 Aug 09. Prior to this attack, Abdullah made contact with Prince Muhammad and claimed he wanted to turn himself in to Saudi authorities. Prince Muhammad agreed to meet him in person and during their meeting Abdullah detonated a PETN-based explosive device which was hidden in his underwear (which of course bears a striking resemblance to the TTP employed by Umar Farouq Abd al Mutallab during his failed midair attack over Detroit). Abdullah al Asiri was killed in the explosion, but Prince Muhammad bin Nayef was not harmed. Several weeks later, in fact, the prince met with top Obama CT officials to warn them of the growing threat from AQAP and provide details about the “underwear suicide bomb” TTP.
As we further unravel the key players involved in both attacks (the 27 Aug attack and the 25 Dec attack) and the methods employed, an article from Newsweek highlights a critical piece of information. The article quotes an unnamed US intelligence official who explains that, “U.S. officials now suspect that Nayef's attempted assassin and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect aboard the Northwest flight, had the same bomb maker in Yemen.” Several pieces of evidence support this conclusion: 1) As Peter Bergen explained in an article at CNN, the explosives used (PETN-based) were virtually identical in both attacks; 2) The method of concealment (explosives hidden in the bomber’s underwear) was identical in both attacks; and 3) we know that the same group (AQAP) directed, planned, and resourced both attacks.
So, who is the most likely individual that played the critical role of bombmaker? I believe with high confidence that Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri fits the bill. Additionally, I believe that he has likely constructed similar devices (or even improved versions) for use in future attacks that AQAP is planning against Western targets in the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Ibrahim al Asiri should become a top priority for US intelligence collection and targeting. His movements and communications will likely indicate the timing, target, and possibly attacker of any future attacks conducted by AQAP.
As multiple news sources have reported recently, the Obama administration has publicly warned of the impending threats against the US homeland (and other Western targets) being planned by AQAP [see articles from the NY Times, the Critical Threats Project, and STRATFOR for the best coverage of these threats]. While it’s clearly important to focus on targeting the AQAP top-tier leadership (Nasir al Wuhayshi and Said Ali al Shihri) and the recruitment/facilitation network being run by Anwar al Awlaki, I think the most effective way to disrupt impending attacks and prevent future attacks is to target the key node within the AQAP network who is absolutely necessary to provide the explosive device. I would venture to guess that as Umar Farouq Abd al Mutallab continues to provide intelligence to the FBI during ongoing interrogations, he is highlighting Ibrahim al Asiri as the individual who constructed the device he used during his failed 25 Dec attack. US intelligence and CT officials should immediately make Ibrahim al Asiri a high-priority target for collection and eventual targeting. This is our best way to stop the multiple attacks currently being plotted by AQAP.