Byline: Daniel Klaidman And Christopher Dickey
Forget underpants. Al Qaeda's diabolical new plan.
after the explosion, as the air cleared in a Saudi villa, the grotesque remains of the suicide bomber littered the room. His mission on that night in August 2009 had been to murder Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the country's counter-terror operations. The would-be assassin had claimed he was giving himself up. He had said he would try to persuade others to surrender as well--but only if he could meet the prince in person. The Saudis flew the "repentant" terrorist from near the border with Yemen to Riyadh. They searched him. He carried no weapon that anyone could see. And then, as he met with the prince, suddenly, like something out of a horror movie, the man exploded. Saudi television showed the bomber's arm blown through the tiles of the suspended ceiling. A bare foot stood alone on the floor. The torso was sheered away below the waist. Bits of flesh stained the white furniture.
Bin Nayef survived with only minor injuries. But a new age of terror--or attempted terror--had begun: that bomb was the first known prototype of a weapon all but undetectable by conventional security measures. Another version of it, a so-called underpants bomb, came close to exploding four months later on an American airliner bound for Detroit. And last week word leaked that a double agent--one run by bin Nayef--had successfully penetrated the same group of terrorists in Yemen, claiming that he, too, wanted to be a suicide bomber. The double agent had obtained the most recent, most sophisticated version of the device, turning it over to his Saudi handlers and their American friends from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Are we safe yet? Not hardly, says Don Borelli, who was until recently one of the FBI's top agents in counterterrorism and now works with the Soufan Group in New York City. "We got one of these things, but who knows how many more of them are out there?" The man thought to have been the bomb maker is Ibrahim al-Asiri, who sent his own brother to die in the attempt to kill bin Nayef. "How many underlings does he have?" asks Borelli. "How many apprentices are there to whom he's spread this knowledge so they can take up the work if he meets the business end of a drone strike?"
Worse still, intelligence is mounting that new terrorist bombs are under development that are meant to be implanted surgically inside a man or a woman (conjuring fears, not least, that someone who looks great with child could in fact be heavy with explosives). Last spring, U.S. intelligence officials began to pick up worrying information that al-Asiri was working with doctors on just such a project. Some dismissed the plan as far-fetched. But by last June, the CIA concluded that al-Asiri was close to being able to pull it off.
Newsweek has learned that U.S. intelligence officials circulated a secret report that laid out in vivid detail how doctors working for al-Asiri had developed the surgical technique. An American government source familiar with the report described it as 15 to 20 pages, single spaced, and replete with schematics and pictures. "It was almost like something you'd see in Scientific American," the source said. (In military parlance, the bomb is called a "surgically implanted improvised explosive device," or SIIED.) A diagram with arrows and blocks of text explained the surgical process. "The idea was to insert the device in the terrorist's love handle," says the U.S. government source, who declined to be named discussing sensitive intelligence. While it was not clear whether the terror doctors had ever succeeded in implanting explosives in a human being, they had experimented with dogs and other animals.
Fortunately these devices are easier to describe than to detonate. "You would have to have a very unique firing system," says Borelli. "If it's a 'body bomb' you are going …