July 24, 2014:
After Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011 some wondered who would take bin Laden’s place at the top of the Islamic terrorist most wanted list. Many counter-terrorism experts believed Saudi Arabian bomb designer and builder Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri should have been the prime candidate. Most people had never heard of al Asiri, but Saudi police and many foreign counter-terrorism experts knew all about al Asiri and urged that he be caught, or killed, as soon as possible. That was because since 2009 al Asiri had been producing one innovative and undetectable bomb design after another. None of those bombs managed to kill anyone (except the bomber in one case) mainly because of luck (bad luck for al Asiri, good luck for the intended victims). In one case there happened to be a Saudi spy around who reported how the bomb was being delivered and the bomb was intercepted and disabled before it could go off. In another case the bomber fumbled when he sought to detonate the undetectable al Asiri bomb he had gotten aboard a flight to the United States. The bomber was noticed and pounced on by fellow passengers before the bomb could be set off. In another case al Asiri miscalculated the amount of explosives needed in a bomb that was placed in the bombers rectum.
The rectum bomb was, to many people a nightmare come true. For over a decade Western terrorism experts (and script writers) had predicted that Islamic terrorists would hide bombs inside their bodies in order to avoid detection before the bombers got to their targets (usually high-value individuals). The simplest method to carry a bomb internally is to insert a small (500 gr/a pound of explosives) package up the rectum. A more ambitious method is to perform some surgery to insert the bomb inside the suicide bomber. As early as 2004 the rectum (or “butt bomb”) approach was portrayed in electronic media (series 3, episode 10 of the UK show “Spooks”). Five years later that sort of thing was actually tried, when a Saudi suicide bomber used such a butt bomb to try and kill the Saudi Arabian interior minister. The attack failed but terrorism experts found that this was another al Asiri design.
The 2009 bombing revealed the basic flaw of this technique. An internal bomb would have to blast through the bombers body before it could do some serious damage to the victim. That’s what happened in 2009, where the bomber was blown apart but the nearby victim was only lightly injured. It’s unclear if this was noted when the Taliban tried the same technique against an Afghan politician two years later. Perhaps more explosives were shoved up the bombers butt this time, or it was because the bomber was hugging the victim when the bomb went off, the victim was more seriously injured (mainly by burns from the blast) but survived.
Islamic terrorists are not noted for their scientific prowess, so I was thought that terrorists using butt bombs would screw up doing the basic calculations to determine if a butt bomb would be powerful enough to actually kill the target. Doing live tests is also problematic. In any event, there have been few other instances of butt bombs being used, or even seriously considered. That, it turned out, was largely due to a shortage of sufficient skilled support personnel to prepare and fit the bomber with the proper size bomb. This was further complicated by fact that the bomber’s body does absorb much of the explosive effect and many suicide bomber are reluctant to volunteer for attacks using this type of bomb.
What frightened terrorism experts most was the sheer number and inventiveness of the al Asiri bomb designs. Nearly all of his designs use explosives and chemical detonators that are undetectable by most means. In other words, al Asiri bombs will usually get past current screening methods. Al Asiri’s biggest problem so far is making his designs more “idiot proof” and easier to build. It is believed that a guy as clever as al Asiri is aware of that and working on solutions.
Even if not on the top of the most wanted list al Asiri has been energetically sought. He was thought to have been killed by an American UAV missile attack in 2013, but that turned out to be false. Same deal in 2014 when Yemeni troops thought they had killed al Asiri, but DNA tests of the body revealed it was not him.
Al Asiri was born to a well-off Saudi family in 1982 and by the time he was in his early 20s he was radicalized and soon sought by the police. By 2009 al Asiri was on the Saudi most wanted list and like many Saudi Islamic terrorists al Asiri fled to Yemen where the al Qaeda organization there recognized his talents and provided the resources for al Asiri to develop and try new designs. In the last two years Yemeni and American counter-terrorism efforts have made Yemen much more dangerous for Islamic terrorists and it is feared that al Asiri has moved to Iraq where many Islamic terrorists believe a more secure terrorist sanctuary is being created.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia both offer cash rewards for information on where al Asiri is and American intelligence forces have devoted a lot of effort into finding al Asiri. So far, the master bomb maker is still in the wild and still designing new bombs.