Amid all the controversies and scandals from Washington dominating our news cycle, a major counterterrorism success by the United States reported last week did not get the attention it deserved: Government officials are confident that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, al-Qaeda’s chief bomb maker, was killed during a U.S. drone strike late last year.
If the reports are true — and caution is in order since Asiri has been reported killed before, only to show up very much alive — he would be the most significant international terrorist removed from the battlefield since Osama bin Laden.
Asiri was born in Saudi Arabia, but has been in Yemen as a leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula for many years. He was the mastermind behind a number of explosive devices that were able to evade security checkpoints. He was well known as a master of his craft, and was as intelligent as he was evil. When I left government in 2013, I considered him the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. His removal leaves the world a safer place.
Asiri had a long history of building sophisticated explosive devices. In 2009, he recruited his younger brother Abdullah to conceal one such bomb in his rectum for an assassination attempt against Saudi Arabia’s most-senior security official at the time, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who later became minister of the interior. Abdullah was able to get close to Nayef by pretending to be a repentant terrorist, and detonated the explosive device near the prince. Abdullah was killed; the prince, miraculously, was only slightly wounded.
But Asiri’s bomb exploits go well beyond this attack. He was also the architect of the device used by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009. This device was concealed in Abdulmutallab’s underwear and he tried to detonate it aboard a U.S. airliner flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. Only Abdulmutallab’s failure to correctly detonate the device prevented the deaths of 290 people on board.
Late in 2010, Asiri hid bombs in printer cartridges designed to bring down multiple cargo flights to the United States. The bombs could not be detected on traditional airport scanners, or by dogs trained to identify explosives. If not for coordinated intelligence work among our allies, this, too, would have resulted in American lives lost.
In 2012, Asiri once again put his talents to evil use and built a nonmetallic suicide vest, which would not have been detected by airport scanners. Again, excellent work by multiple intelligence services prevented an attack. Undeterred, Asiri even reportedly tried to surgically implant his bombs inside human bodies.
Most recently, the bomb maker successfully designed explosive devices that could be hidden in electronic equipment, which resulted in the current Transportation Security Administration requirement that travelers remove laptops and iPads from carry-on luggage as they go through airport security.
The only caveat to the significance of removing Asiri from the battlefield was that, for a number of years, he actively trained an unknown number of other bomb makers. But, few, if any of those, likely have his talent and creativity.
This successful U.S. operation shows that, despite the partisan politics of Washington that dominates the daily news cycle, the men and women of the U.S. national security community continue to work hard and effectively to keep our country safe. I have no doubt that politics are not affecting those working on the front lines protecting the country.
Such work remains critical as both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, according to a report recently released by the United Nations, retain significant strength across a swath of the globe that runs from western Africa all the way to Southeast Asia. The report noted that al-Qaeda’s global network “continues to show resilience,” with its allies showing greater strength than the Islamic State in many parts of the world.
It is important to note that the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen, still the strongest and most dangerous of all the al-Qaeda groups, is distinct from our support of the Arab coalition that is supporting pro-government forces in Yemen’s civil war, which has dragged on for three years and has resulted in one of the largest humanitarian crises on the planet.
Looking ahead, the Trump administration, as did the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, needs to work more with allies and partners to deal with the underlying causes of terrorism that create extremists in the first place. This counter-radicalization work will not grab the headlines, but it is the only way to prevent the struggle against extremists from becoming multigenerational.
In the meantime, the Trump administration gets high marks for keeping the pressure on existing extremist groups.