It's difficult to exaggerate the value of the sting operation that foiled Al Qaeda's latest underwear bomb plot. On Tuesday night, U.S. officials revealed that a Saudi agent working with the CIA infiltrated Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen and volunteered to blow himself up on a U.S.-bound jetliner. The agent gained the trust of the terrorist cell, obtained the group's latest underwear bomb and delivered it to CIA officials intact. Here's why sting is such an intelligence coup:
Snagging the bomb intact. Typically, when U.S. officials uncover Al Qaeda's bombs it's after they've been triggered, making it more difficult to understand how they work. The genius of this operation is the CIA retrieved the bomb intact, which we now know was very sophisticated. This morning, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston learned that this bomb was much more sophisticated than the 2009 underwear bomb. "Sources tell us it was a really form-fitting bomb that would've been hard for Airport security to spot even with a pat-down," she reports. "To give you an idea of how it's different from the 2009 bomb, the Christmas day underwar bomb was put in Yemeni boxer shorts that are kind of loose fitting. This bomb was put in the equivalent of briefs so it was ... form-fitting and harder to see."
Learning about bin Laden's Al Qaeda. There are many offshoots of Al Qaeda but the one in Yemen, which was infiltrated, is the most fearsome, former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan told PBS News Hour last night. "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the closest to bin Laden's version of al-Qaida. All these individuals were with bin Laden in Afghanistan, served with bin Laden. They are not one of these al-Qaida groups that were franchised after 9/11," he said. He stressed that it's a "great success" that officials have a window into the Al Qaeda branch because they won't be giving up anytime soon. "They are very dangerous," he said, "And I think we should keep in mind that they will always try to accomplish their goal. I mean, al-Qaida tried to do a shoe bomb and then an underwear bomb, a printer bomb, and they will continue to work hard to inflict damage to the United States."