The successful blocking of an ambitious al-Qaida plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner was an international sting operation worthy of Hollywood, with spies tricking terrorists into showing their cards.
Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, working closely with the CIA, used an informant to pose as a would-be suicide bomber. His job was to persuade the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen to give him a new kind of nonmetallic bomb that the militants were designing to easily pass through airport security.
But the double agent instead arranged to deliver the explosive device to U.S. and other intelligence authorities waiting in another country, officials said Tuesday. The agent is now safely outside Yemen and is being debriefed.
Experts are analyzing the sophisticated device at the FBI's bomb laboratory at Quantico, Va., to determine if it really could evade current security measures. It appears to be an upgraded version of the so-called "underwear bomb" that failed to take down a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Like that bomb, this device bears the forensic signature of feared al-Qaida bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who was born in Saudi Arabia and is believed to be hiding in Yemen. But the double agent apparently never got close to Asiri, who remains one of the top CIA targets.
The operation had an added benefit.
It produced intelligence that helped U.S. authorities finally locate Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, a top al-Qaida operative in Yemen. Quso had been on the FBI's most-wanted list for his alleged involvement in the bombing of the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000. The FBI had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his capture.
Sunday, a CIA drone aircraft fired a missile that killed Quso as he stepped out of his car in Yemen, U.S. officials said.
The drone strike and the effort to obtain the explosive device "are part of the same operation," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who heads the House Homeland Security Committee.
Senior U.S. officials continued to withhold certain details, including the location and status of the individual -- described by officials as a Saudi informant -- who penetrated the terrorist group posing as a willing suicide bomber and then turned over the device to authorities after leaving Yemen.
But comments by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and others made it clear that the involvement of the CIA and its partners went well beyond simply watching the plot unfold.
"We're confident that neither the device nor the intended user of this device posed a threat to us," Brennan said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" program. "We had the device in our control, and we were confident that it was not going to pose a threat to the American public."
The bomb arrived at Quantico about a week ago and is being examined by explosives technicians, law enforcement officials said. One said the explosive was made from a chemical compound that was "built to get around U.S. security and had the potential to do that."
The plot shows that al-Qaida's franchise in Yemen remains committed to mounting attacks against Western targets even after its most prominent advocate of such strikes, the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike last year.
The disruption of the threat also indicates that the CIA and other agencies have gained significant traction on their target two years after President Obama began deploying more spies, eavesdropping equipment and armed drones to the Arabian Peninsula.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with recent operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, said the Saudi spy service has furnished a steady stream of intelligence to the CIA.
"They've had someone on the inside of AQAP for some time," the former official told the Washington Post. The Saudi source has provided intelligence on previous plots, including the tip that enabled authorities to disrupt al-Qaida's attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago in 2010.
Efforts by the CIA and the Saudi intelligence service to protect that source and enable him to remain in place make it unlikely that he was used to deliver the bomb, according to former officials, who said it is more likely that a lower-ranking operative was used in that role.
Meanwhile, security procedures at U.S. airports remained unchanged Tuesday, a reflection of both the U.S. confidence in its security systems and a recognition that the government can't realistically expect travelers to endure much more. Increased costs and delays to airlines and shipping companies could have a global economic impact, too.
Americans traveled Tuesday with little apparent concern.
"We were nervous -- for a minute," said Nan Gartner, a retiree on her way to Italy from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. "But then we thought, we aren't going anywhere near Yemen, so we're OK."