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Official: Attempt to blow up U.S.-bound plane thwarted

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(Credit: CNN)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — U.S. and other intelligence agencies recently broke up a plot to bomb an airliner and have seized an explosive device that is similar to ones previously used by al Qaeda, officials said Monday.

The plot was discovered before it threatened any Americans, and no airliners were at risk, one U.S. counterrrorism said. A nonmetallic explosive device like the one used in the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound jet in 2009 was recovered, the official said, adding that it was meant for use by a suicide bomber.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said authorities have “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time,” although they continue to monitor efforts to carry out such attacks.

The threat was foiled around the same time as the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, although a second U.S. counterrorism official said the attempted attack was not timed to coincide with the death of the al Qaeda leader.

“What this incident makes clear is that this country has to continue to remain vigilant against those that would seek to attack this country. And we will do everything necessary to keep America safe,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta soon after news of the plot broke.

The FBI said an improvised explosive device was seized abroad and that it is conducting technical and forensic analysis on it.

The device is similar to others previously used by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which Western officials describe as al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, the FBI said.

The intended user of the bomb “is not a threat anymore,” said a senior administration official, declining to provide further details on the individual.

The recovered device, which never made it near an airport or airplane, was not built to be a so-called body bomb, the official said.

“AQAP is the responsible group here,” said a different senior U.S. official.

“While similar, a preliminary review of this device shows that it has some significant differences from the device used in the Christmas Day attack. It is clear that AQAP is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the causes of the failure of the 2009 device,” the official said, referring to the Detroit incident.

U.S. officials believe AQAP has more than 1,000 members in Yemen and connections to al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

The Yemen affiliate has been behind two of the most audacious attempts to target the United States in recent years: the attempted 2009 bombing and the printer bombs loaded onto cargo planes in 2010 and destined for an address in Chicago.

In both cases, U.S. authorities believe the bombs were built by Ibrahim al-Asiri. Both devices contained a main charge of PETN, a white powdery explosive that conventional “single beam” X-ray machines are rarely able to detect.

In 2009, al-Asiri fitted out his own brother, Abdullah al-Asiri, with a PETN-based underwear bomb to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a top Saudi security official. The device killed his brother instantly but failed to kill its target.

The government of Yemen has been fighting AQAP for years, with mixed results.

On Sunday, a senior AQAP operative wanted for his role in the USS Cole bombing was killed by an airstrike in Yemen, officials said.

Fahd al Quso, 37, was killed while riding in a vehicle in the Rafdh district in Shabwa province. He was killed by a CIA drone strike, U.S. officials told CNN.

The weekend attack plus the foiled airline plot delivered a “one-two punch” against AQAP, said the senior administration official.

The White House said President Barack Obama was told about the plot in April, and the attempt “underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad.”