Image: Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri
Ho  /  AP
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi militant believed killed in the U.S. drone strike in Yemen, constructed the bombs for the al-Qaida branch's most notorious attempted attacks — including the underwear-borne explosives intended to a down a U.S. aircraft, and a bomb carried by his own brother intended to assassinate a Saudi prince.
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updated 10/2/2011 1:05:01 AM ET 2011-10-02T05:05:01

A Saudi militant believed killed in the U.S. drone strike in Yemen constructed the bombs for the al-Qaida branch's most notorious attempted attacks — including the underwear-borne explosives intended to a down a U.S. aircraft, and a bomb carried by his own brother intended to assassinate a Saudi prince.

The death of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri would make the Friday drone strikes on a convoy in the central deserts of Yemen one of the most effective single blows in the U.S. campaign to take out al-Qaida's top figures.

The strike also killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who had been key to recruiting for the militant group, and a Pakistani-American, Samir Khan, who was a top English-language propagandist.

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But Christopher Boucek, a scholar who studies Yemen and al-Qaida, said al-Asiri's death would "overshadow" that of the two Americans due to his operational importance to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group that is considered the most active branch of the terror network.

Late Friday, two U.S. officials said intelligence indicated al-Asiri was among those killed in the strike. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because al-Asiri's death has not officially been confirmed.

The 29-year-old al-Asiri was one of the first Saudis to join the Yemen-based al-Qaida branch and became its key bombmaker, designing the explosives in two attempted attacks against the United States.

His fingerprint was found on the bomb hidden in the underwear of a Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. The attack failed because the would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab botched detonating the explosives, ending up only burning himself before being wrestled away by passengers.

The explosives used in that bomb were chemically identical to those hidden inside two printers that were shipped from Yemen last year, bound for Chicago and Philadelphia in a plot claimed by al-Qaida. The bombs were intercepted in England and Dubai.

In perhaps his most ruthless operation, al-Asiri turned his younger brother, Abdullah, into a human bomb in a 2009 attempt to kill Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the kingdom's top counterterrorism official and son of its interior minister.

Abdullah volunteered for the suicide mission, asking to replace another militant named to carry it out, according to an account in Sada al-Malahem, an Arabic-language Web magazine issued by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Abdullah pretended he was surrendering to Saudi authorities, and Prince Mohammed agreed to receive him in his home in Jiddah during a gathering to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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While talking to the prince, Abdullah blew himself up. The prince, however, escaped with only injuries.

Saudi officials have said the bomb was "inside" Abdullah's body, but explosives experts believe that al-Asiri strapped the bomb between his brother's legs.

"Come see my brother Abdullah's body parts. May he enjoy it, he was killed the way he had hoped for and his body was torn for the love of God," al-Asiri said afterward, according to Sada al-Malahem.

All three bombs contained a high explosive known as PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which was also used by convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is led by a Yemeni militant named Nasser al-Wahishi, a former aide of Osama bin Laden, and combines Yemeni fighters with the remnants of the terror network's branch in Saudi Arabia, which was largely crushed by the kingdom's security forces in the mid 2000's. The group is believed to number several hundred fighters, hiding in the mountains of Yemen where the central government has little control.

According to Sada al-Malahem, al-Asiri and his brother Abdullah were the first of the Saudi branch to pledge allegiance to al-Wahishi, after fleeing Saudi Arabia following a month chase by Saudi authorities. After their allegiance, the magazine issued the call for other Saudi members to come to Yemen.

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Al-Asiri and his brother abruptly left their Mecca home three years ago, said their father, a four-decade veteran of the Saudi military. Aside from a brief phone call to say they had left the country, he never heard from them again.

According to Sada al-Malahem, al-Asiri and his friends originally planned to go fight the Americans in Iraq, but Saudi police raided the apartment where they were hiding and arrested them.

"They put me in prison and I began to see the depths of (the Saudis) servitude to the Crusaders and their hatred for the true worshippers of God, from the way they interrogated me," the magazine quotes him as saying.

Upon his release, al-Asiri tried to create a new militant cell in Saudi Arabia but was once again discovered. Six of his colleagues were killed and he and his brother fled south to the Asir mountains where they holed up for weeks.

They entered Yemen on Aug. 1, 2006, and met with al-Wahishi, who had escaped from prison just months earlier, and became the nucleus of the new al-Qaida affiliate, said the account, which could not be independently confirmed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Interactive: A look at Al-Qaida

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Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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