Wednesday, 2 November 2011

US  targets two more top Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, after killing Al Awlaki

Source: WSJ,02/11/2011


WASHINGTON—U.S. counterterrorism officials have set their sights on the top bomb maker of al Qaeda's Yemeni branch, whom the officials have identified as a central figure in at least three new potential terror threats involving Americans or American targets.

Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, the bomb maker, poses a lower-profile but more lethal threat to the U.S. than the group's prominent propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the Central Intelligence Agency killed last month, U.S. and international counterterrorism officials said.

Mr. Asiri is one of the top Qaeda operatives in the crosshairs of the CIA's new drone program in Yemen, which the agency inaugurated with the Sept. 30 strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, who was the charismatic, American-born face of al Qaeda's Yemen branch, officials said.

The Hunt for Al Qaeda

With Mr. Awlaki dead, U.S. counterterrorism officials have turned their attention to other imminent threats such as Mr. Asiri and Nasir al Wahishi, Osama bin Laden's former secretary in Afghanistan, who now heads Al Qaeda's Yemen branch.

Mr. Asiri has been involved in all of the group's major plots in the past two years, U.S. officials say, including an August 2009 attempt to kill a Saudi prince, the botched 2009 Christmas Day airliner bombing, and a foiled 2010 cargo plane plot, U.S.

U.S. officials investigating Mr. Asiri say he has been scouting out U.S. airline and other domestic targets on the Internet, researching the security measures taken and devising ways to circumvent them. The officials wouldn't describe further details of the new threats, which they indicated were in early stages.

Alleged role: Leading bomb maker for al Qaeda's Yemeni branch
Education: Studied chemistry at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia
Radicalization: Reportedly turned to extremist Islam as a teenager after the death of his oldest brother in a car accident
Alleged criminal acts: Failed tries in 2009 to kill a Saudi prince and bomb a passenger jet on Christmas Day, and blow up a cargo plane in 2010
Mr. Asiri has been working to develop mechanisms to stealthily deploy explosives, as well as chemical and biological weapons, the senior counterterrorism official said. He allegedly played a key role in developing plans to deploy so-called belly-bombs, surgically implanted in the bomber's abdomen.

"He is a greater operational threat than al-Awlaki," the official said. "He's pretty imaginative."

In the days following the Sept. 30 strike, some U.S. officials were unsure whether Mr. Asiri was in a car with Mr. Awlaki when a missile struck the vehicle. U.S. intelligence officials knew the identity of only one of the four occupants of the car: Mr. Awlaki. They now say they believe Mr. Asiri wasn't in the car and remains at large.

None of the 2009 or 2010 explosives plots hit their targets, but U.S. counterterrorism officials say Mr. Asiri remains a top concern because the bombs he has designed have been successful at evading detection. "All three proved that his particular brand of explosives could foil the countermeasures currently in place," said Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations' al Qaeda Taliban Monitoring Team. Officials believe al Qaeda in Yemen has offered these bomb-making techniques to other terrorist groups, he said.

A Saudi native believed to be 29 years old, Mr. Asiri is skilled in martial arts and studied chemistry at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, where he began building his technical knowledge about explosives.

His nickname is Abu Salah, which means "success" in the Islamic sense, said Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Mr. Asiri appears to have turned toward extremist Islam as a teenager after the death of his oldest brother in a car accident around 2000, according to Saudi newspaper interviews with Mr. Asiri's parents. Mr. Asiri and another brother, Abdullah, began following extremist propaganda, and his support was galvanized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He was arrested in 2005 by Saudi authorities as he sought to travel to Iraq to join the al Qaeda branch there, a U.S. counterterrorism official said. He was jailed for nine months, and upon his release he spent four months with his family and then disappeared to Yemen in 2006, according to Saudi news accounts. There, he connected with local Yemeni radicals and other al Qaeda sympathizers who were leaving Saudi Arabia.

"He and some other guys went to Yemen, because their safe haven was closing in on them," the U.S. counterterrorism official said. Both parents reportedly have condemned their son's jihadist path.

By 2007, Mr. Asiri had connected with al Qaeda members, who tutored him in explosives work, the U.S. counterterrorism official said. He later became a top al Qaeda trainer in bomb-making, and possibly martial arts.

Write to Siobhan Gorman at

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