* Security changes made after similar 2009 device - U.S.
* Explosive device being studied to prevent future attempts
(Updates with details throughout)
By Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, May 8 U.S. security measures could
detect a non-metallic bomb like the one in the latest plot by al
Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, but key technology such as body
scanners is not deployed at all U.S. airports, Obama
administration officials said Tuesday.
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies in the last 10 days
seized an explosive device that was an improved version of the
"underwear bomb" in the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline
bombing attempt, U.S. officials said on Monday.
Officials said the bomb and the plot to introduce it aboard
an aircraft with a suicide bomber was the work of Yemen-based Al
Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered to be the group's
most dangerous offshoot.
There was no immediate sign the Obama administration was
ordering changes in airline security procedures. The latest plot
never came close to fruition and no aircraft was in danger.
The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday emphasized
the importance of security measures to air carriers and foreign
government partners. "The guidance issued today simply
reiterates and updates existing security guidelines and
encourages continued vigilance in light of the recently
apprehended device," a DHS official said.
Because the device was similar to the one in the failed 2009
attempt over Detroit by Nigerian-born militant Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallab, security steps taken since "would have been able
to prevent this device from bringing down an airplane," the
Other U.S. officials said that current airport metal
detectors probably would have trouble spotting a device which
had no metal parts.
But airport body scanners, which use light doses of
radiation to scan through a passenger's clothes, ought to be
able to detect "anomalies" which could then be further examined
in a hands-on, pat down search, they said.
According to the U.S. Transportation Security
Administration, about 700 full-body scanners have been deployed
to more than 180 airports nationwide since 2007.
However, there are about 450 airports in the United States
that have federal security, according to the TSA.
A DHS official said there is a "multi-layered security
approach which includes intelligence-derived watchlists,
behavior detection, explosive trace detection and canines."
Security at international airports, which varies widely from
country to country, is an additional concern for U.S.
Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois professor and
expert in aviation security, said airline security shouldn't
change in response to the recent plot.
"The most important lesson to be learned from this finding
is that intelligence information is what prevented this incident
from escalating into an actual event," Jacobson said.
"More intrusive, indiscriminate airport screening is the
worst possible response, and will ultimately make the entire air
system less secure for all," he said.
The latest device appeared to be similar to the work of
fugitive Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who U.S.
sources believe is a bomb-maker working with AQAP. It was being
studied to help prevent any future bombing attempts.
"I'm convinced that Asiri is behind this. He is an evil
genius when it comes to bomb-making," House Homeland Security
Committee Chairman Peter King said on FOX.
"The FBI is exploiting it. We're trying to understand the
different aspects of the design to make sure that we're able to
take preventive actions in the future to prevent this or other
types of devices from getting into areas that could threaten the
American public," John Brennan, a White House counter-terrorism
official, said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The United States continues to take into account the latest
measures from al Qaeda and will make adjustments as needed,
Brennan said, adding he was confident the security system
provides the necessary protection.
"Now we're trying to make sure that we take the measures
that we need to to prevent any other type of IED (improvised
explosive device) similarly constructed from getting through
security," Brennan said.
Other officials said security body scanners would almost
certainly fail to detect a bomb implanted in a body organ or
cavity. However, the public might find it unacceptable to be
subjected to scanning by machines powerful enough to detect
devices hidden inside a body due to the risk of exposure to
excessive radiation, a U.S. official said.
U.S. officials have said AQAP has been working to design
explosive devices which could be implanted inside suicide
bombers and there were doctors willing to perform the necessary
What happened to the suspect who had the device seized
within the last 10 days was unclear. Officials said the person
was alive and either was captured or voluntarily turned over the
underwear bomb to a foreign intelligence service.
The would-be bomber's defection or infiltration was handled
by an allied intelligence service in the region, likely Saudi
Arabia or Yemen, officials said.
Accounts differed over whether a suspected U.S. drone strike
in Yemen that killed two members of al Qaeda on Sunday was
linked to the operation that foiled the "underwear bomb" plot.
The drone strike was "part of the same
intelligence-gathering operation that allowed us to keep the
bomb from going on to the plane and also allows us to keep
possession of the bomb," King said on FOX.
Other officials said, however, that the drone strike, which
killed a senior AQAP operative, was not directly linked to the
foiling of the underwear bomb plot.
On Sunday, two Yemeni members of al Qaeda were killed by a
missile strike on their car.
(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, Susan Heavey, Vicki
Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)