NEAL CONAN, HOST:
We learned yesterday about a new al-Qaida plot to blow up an airliner bound for the U.S. with an underwear bomb, described as a more advanced version of the device that malfunctioned aboard a Northwest Airlines jet headed for Detroit on Christmas day in 2009. This time, the CIA seized the device in Yemen before it could be taken aboard a plane. It's not clear if it would have made it through airport security. Both of these underwear bomb plots originated with the group that calls itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaida offshoot based in Yemen. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us now from our bureau in New York. Dina, nice to have you back.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: And nice to be here.
CONAN: And we're learning more about how the CIA got its hands on this bomb, apparently a source inside an al-Qaida cell?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I know. It sounds rather amazing. But from what we understand is they had a source who was secretly working for the CIA and several other international intelligence agencies. And he was the one who not only told them about the plot but actually found a way to get the bomb to them. I mean, the bomb right now is in Quantico, Virginia, at the FBI lab, where they're analyzing it.
CONAN: And how is it different from the bomb that Abdulmutallab tried to use on the Christmas day flight, what, two and a half years ago?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we're only getting sketchy details about it. I think what we know about it is that it didn't have any metal in it, which would have made it easier to get through airport security. We also understand it had a different detonation system than the Abdulmutallab bomb. And this is particularly interesting because when the Abdulmutallab bomb - it didn't actually failed to go off. It just - it malfunctioned. It actually flamed quite a bit. And officials said pretty early on that it would have been a viable bomb, but the detonation system didn't work.
And what's interesting is that they changed the detonation system apparently in this new bomb. So either al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's bomb makers figured that out on their own or they're watching the news pretty carefully. And U.S. officials told them what was wrong with their bomb, and they fixed it.
CONAN: And do we know anything more about this source inside al-Qaida? We know that this has been the holy grail of intelligence for a decade.
TEMPLE-RASTON: We don't. What we do know is that he is safely outside of Yemen. And we do know that somehow he got this bomb to the hands of intelligence officials so that they could take a look at it. And this is the reason why we've heard the Obama administration sort of in the run-up to the Osama bin Laden raid anniversary saying that there was no viable plot. And apparently, this source was in control of the explosive and the plot the entire time. And because he was a source working for the CIA, they weren't worried that somehow the plot would get out his control.
CONAN: Was the plot designed to go off on the anniversary of the bin Laden death?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Actually, I know that's been reported, but from what we've been able to figure out from our sources, we don't think that's true because the bomber apparently had not yet bought plane tickets, and he hadn't even picked a flight in which this bomb was supposed to go. And if it had been to coincide - apparently, what he had been told by AQAP was that he could - this al-Qaida group - he could pick whichever flight and the timing as he saw fit. So I think that people sort of jumped to the conclusion that this had to do with the Osama bin Laden raid, and there's really no - nothing besides the vague timing to suggest that it does.
CONAN: Another question about timing. This plot comes public the day after a drone strike in Yemen that killed a man named Fahd Mohammad Ahmed al-Quso, the man wanted also in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 who'd reportedly taken over from the late Anwar al-Awlaki as the operations leader of AQAP.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. It's a little bit difficult to know exactly cause and effect here, but there sure is a coincidence that they have someone who is on the inside of al-Qaida. And we understand that that Quso actually was behind this plot and had ordered the plot. And then, you know, two days before we find out about the plot, Quso dies in a drone strike. So we don't know if these things are exactly in line with each other, or if they're cause and effect, but certainly, the coincidence - or at least the timing makes you wonder whether or not these things are connected.
CONAN: And the bomb maker, the name we read is Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who not only made these two underwear bombs, but allegedly sent his brother in to - in an attempt to assassinate the - one of the princes of Saudi Arabia and the counterterrorism chief.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. He was sort of the head of intelligence for Saudi Arabia. Yeah. Asiri is really an interesting guy. He's about 29 years old, and he went to a university where he was a chemistry major, and he dropped out of school and apparently tried to go to Iraq to fight against the Americans. He was caught at the border, and Saudi officials arrested him. He was in jail and, apparently, he was radicalized in jail. And as soon as he got out of jail, the first thing he did was try to go to Yemen. So he's been at al-Qaida - he's been a member of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen for six years, which is quite a long time.
CONAN: What is, at this point, the strength of AQAP al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula?
TEMPLE-RASTON: We're not entirely sure. The number that most people talk about is somewhere in the dozens or maybe 100 or so people there. I think what's more important is the kind of people that they have there. Al-Asiri is considered one of the genius bomb-makers for al-Qaida. He's very good at miniaturizing things. And maybe because of his chemistry background, he's very good at making bombs that work. I mean, in the case of the cavity bomb that his brother carried into the Saudi intelligence chief's sort of quarters, that - he didn't get close enough. The way - it went off just the way it was supposed to go off. It's just his body took much more of the impact than, I guess, they had figured he would do. And so that was a close call. His bombs worked, and that's what makes him very unusual.
The concern is he's been with AQAP for six years now, and that group has - it's middle management has been decimated by drone attacks. And it's hard to believe that if he has this skill, he didn't spend the last six years passing it on to other people.
CONAN: We're talking with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent. Oliver(ph) is on the line. Oliver calling us from Tampa.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OLIVER: Basically, I feel, as a former military man, this information should never have been leaked so that then they can't use it against us.
CONAN: Which information, the existence of this bomb?
OLIVER: The existence of the bomb and then the - if there were malfunctions in the system, that information should have been maintained by the proper authority, and then in turn used as a counter-mechanism against any future attacks in that particular area.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, hard to keep it quiet when a device malfunctions on an airplane flying into Detroit in - on Christmas Day, but these other informations, as you suggested, maybe this bomb-maker did learn something from news accounts of what went wrong.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, and that's something you have to take into account every time you report something about this kind of thing. I think the caller is exactly right. But at the same time, if, you know, a high-ranking official, when you ask him, why didn't the bomb work or why didn't the bomb go off, if he answers that on live television, you know, the cat is out of the bag, and that's the stuff that gets reported.
CONAN: Oliver, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Listeners, of course, will not know this, but Dina Temple-Raston was supposed to be off today. We wanted to talk to her about another story, her recent trip to Guantanamo Bay to report on the arraignment for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Speaking of al-Qaida, this is the original al-Qaida, the man who has claimed credit for the 9/11 attacks and other atrocities. And, well, Dina, what was that like?
TEMPLE-RASTON: We actually - there was a lottery of journalists who were down there. They pulled our business cards out of a bag to get us into the viewing area in the courtroom because everybody wanted to be in there, but there weren't enough seats. So we were one of just a handful of reporters who were allowed in there for that opening session. And I have to say, it was quite amazing.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed didn't really look like what I was expecting. He's actually kind of a small guy. You know, I'm about 5'4" and 120 pounds, and he is sort of the same proportions that I am, maybe a little bit heavier but not much, and I wasn't expecting that. And he has this incredibly well-tended beard, which we had seen, you know, in his recent Red Cross photograph, but he'd gone to all this attention to actually henna his beard, so it was sort of this bright red.
And, you know, as you were looking down the line at the various defendants, it was really quite striking how - for example, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was sort of the key guy in Hamburg who helped the hijackers get organized, he looks exactly like his picture. He hasn't changed at all. It's as if the still photograph that I've been looking at for years suddenly just came to life.
CONAN: And the behavior in the courtroom - I think one of the survivors of the attack said, they were performing jihad there in the courtroom.
TEMPLE-RASTON: With all due respect to that survivor and the victims' families who were there in the gallery sitting next to us, that isn't what was going on. I mean, you have to understand that this courtroom is quite a large courtroom, and you have five defendants and all their lawyers and all these guards and all these advisors, and then sort of a phalanx of prosecutors. I mean, the room was chock-a-block full. And I've been down there before to see the al-Nashiri hearing - he was the USS Cole bomber and, or the alleged USS Cole bomber - and he - the courtroom with him was virtually empty. So there was sort of this chaos just by virtue of the fact that there were so many people in there.
And were the defendants acting out? Absolutely. Did it look like it was orchestrated? It very much did. It looked - it was almost like Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a puppeteer. That they had sort of decided that at various times they would just sort of stand up and pray. Or Ramzi bin al-Shibh would suddenly shout at the judge that he thought he was going to be killed by the guards in Guantanamo, and they would make it look like a suicide. And there was all that going on.
And then the defense strategy seemed to be to do nothing but sort of frustrate the judge to see if they could get some sort of rise out of him. So they would interrupt him, or they'd stand up before, you know, he could get a full sentence out of his mouth. Or they would try to have motions heard before they were even sworn in as attorneys. And that sort of added to the chaos. And they wouldn't admit whether or not this was a concerted effort, that their clients were doing this, and they were doing this as part of a big dance that they had planned, but it certainly is how it looked from the back of the room.
CONAN: And from the accounts I've read in the papers, they did not get a rise out of the judge.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he was exceedingly patient. The hearing was supposed to - we had been told that the hearing was going to last, maybe, about five hours. It was an arraignment of five people and you had to swear in the lawyers and that sort of thing. So there was a lot to take care of there. And the judge was really patient until it sort of came to the end of the hearing in which they were talking about scheduling. And the next hearing is supposed to be - to hear motions is supposed to be June 12 through the 15, I think. And so one of the defense attorneys stood up and said, well, you know, is it possible to talk about that schedule? And the judge has said, no. The way - this has happened all day. The way you guys have been treating me, there is no way we're talking about that schedule. He said, normally, I'm really, really flexible about these things, but no. Two can play at that game. I mean, that's not a quote, but essentially, that's exactly what he said.
CONAN: Even so, given that schedule, this is a process. This could stretch for years.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the prosecution had said that they would be ready to go to trial on - in August. And the defense stood up right away and said, we'd at least - we need at least a year to have that happen. I mean, in the military commission system, the arraignment - we're used to, in the federal system, having an arraignment quickly followed by witnesses and testimony and that sort of thing. In the military commission system, it's a little bit different. And, in fact, the five men didn't even enter pleas. They all decided to defer pleas, which is one of the options you can have in a military commission. So this is going to be a very long, drawn out process.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, thanks very much for your time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
CONAN: NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.