The Invention of a Master Terrorist
In late July, a little-noticed United Nations report on terrorist groups appeared with the news that one of the world’s most dangerous men may be dead. Citing UN “member states,” the report announced that Ibrahim al-Asiri, the chief bomb-maker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had a $5 million bounty on his head, “may have been killed during the second half of 2017.” The likely cause—a U.S. airstrike—was not mentioned. The UN report added that al-Asiri’s death would be “a serious blow to [AQAP’s] operational capability.”
National security reporters soon picked up the tip. On August 17, the Associated Press, citing Yemeni government officials and tribal representatives, reported al-Asiri’s death; American sources quickly followed with confirmation. According to these vague reports, he was killed sometime in a six-month period in a drone strike in Maʾrib Governorate, an administrative region northeast of the country’s capital, San’a. (On May 23, 2017, not long before al-Asiri’s purported death, U.S. Navy SEALs raided a village in the Marib region and killed five people, including a child and a partially blind septuagenarian. The Defense Department claimed that there were “no credible indications” of civilian casualties.)
As Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen noted, “al-Asiri is not unique. He is simply the name we know.”
Forsaking typical practice, jihadist media outlets have not published histrionic tributes to al-Asiri’s martyrdom, leading to speculation that he might still be alive. Other more cautious commentators suggest, in any event, that the death of this thirty-six-year-old Saudi munitions expert wouldn’t mean the end of al-Qaeda’s insurgent bombing campaign. Al-Asiri presumably had many students, who likely learned the basics of bomb-making from the master. As Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen noted, “al-Asiri is not unique. He is simply the name we know.”
Still, given that an al-Qaeda operative of al-Asiri’s stature—a prime agent of global terror—may well have breathed his last, the American mainstream press has been distinctly muted in its response. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notoriously vicious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by U.S. forces in 2006 there was a celebratory barrage of coverage—and the killing of Osama bin Laden garnered a blizzard of stories, book-length accounts, and movie deals.
The intelligence community has been much more vocal in celebrating al-Asiri’s demise as one more exceptionalist victory in the never-ending war on terror. Speaking to CBS, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell described al-Asiri as “probably the most sophisticated terrorist bomb maker on the planet. Incredibly creative, incredibly innovative.” CBS’s own reporter, David Martin, speculated that al-Asiri “might well have been the single most dangerous terrorist in the world”—an appellation that also surfaced in a 2013 Time magazine story about his exploits. National Review, finding its sense of humor somewhere in the fetish bag where it keeps William F. Buckley’s most cutting racist witticisms, titled its report, “Some Asiri-ously Good News.” Quoting from the vast cadre of ever-anonymous U.S. officials, Reuters called it “a major symbolic blow to AQAP.”
And indeed, reports of al-Asiri’s bomb-making skills are legion. CNN’s Barbara Starr—as reliable a conduit for Pentagon thinking as there is in the American press—wrote that “Al-Asiri is widely credited with perfecting miniaturized bombs with little or no metal content that could make it past some airport security screening.” For that reason, he was considered “a direct threat to the U.S.” As Morell acknowledged, al-Asiri’s suspected abilities had an immense impact on airport and travel security. “A good chunk of what you have to take out of your bag and what has to be screened,” he told CBS, “is because of Asiri and his capabilities of putting explosives in very difficult to find places.” The short-lived laptop ban? That, too, was in response to al-Asiri’s work.
There’s just a wee problem with the Ibrahim al-Asiri narrative. Don’t let it bother you too much. In all likelihood, al-Asiri was not a pleasant person, and he would have killed scores of Americans if he had the chance or the competence. But the truth is that Ibrahim al-Asiri, one of the top enemies of the United States and a constant target of its vaunted intelligence services, has never been publicly linked to any successful plots against American targets. He’s never been pegged with killing an American. Not a single one. In fact, al-Asiri, while he designed and built his share of bombs, is known to have killed very few people at all. His most significant recorded kill? That of his brother, Abdullah al-Asiri.
The tale, if you haven’t heard it, is a classic from the literature of loser jihad. (Loser jihad, in case you’re wondering, is pretty much the Islamist world’s equivalent of the loser alt-right: like any movement targeting disaffected young men with a taste for violence, glory, and posthumous fame, jihad attracts its share of adherents who can be charitably described as layabouts, men who are notably short on accomplishment but nevertheless nihilistic in their ambitions. You might call them failsons, in the new American vernacular.) This theory, which is my own but is a little slapdash and likely unoriginal, borrows from French scholar Olivier Roy’s idea of the “Islamization of radicalism,” in which a profound break with society comes first, with Islamist jihad offering the now-radicalized outcast-in-question a retrospective salvific sense of purpose. To that end, Roy points to many French and Belgian jihadists, who started as petty criminals, drug users, and other fringe figures before committing themselves to religious violence.
Anyway, back to al-Asiri and his brother Abdullah. After some light dabbling in terrorist activity landed al-Asiri in prison, the brothers embarked from Saudi Arabia in 2006 to continue the righteous adventure of jihad in Yemen. In the summer of 2009, they devised a plan—a clever one, but one clearly in need of considerable fleshing out. Abdullah contacted some authorities back home in Saudi Arabia and claimed that he had changed his ways and wanted to give up jihadist terrorism. He would come back, he said, but only on the condition that he could meet with Muhammad bin Nayef, a Saudi prince and one of the country’s top counter-terrorism officials. The meeting was arranged, and at the appointed time, Abdullah’s body exploded, killing him immediately; the Saudi prince escaped with minimal injuries. The bomb, built by Ibrahim, had been kept somewhere on Abdullah’s person—probably in his rectum.
The bombing was a farce, but it put al-Asiri on the map, leading to widespread fears of bombs sewn into body cavities and a new generation of ingenious plastic-based explosive devices passing through metal detectors. Over the years, security officials in the west adopted a range of measures to respond to bombs purportedly cooked up by al-Asiri and other top bomb-makers. Hence the baroque protocols of airport security that require passengers to remove shoes and jackets, dump liquids, expose themselves to body scanners, along with all kinds of other subsidiary brands of security theater.
In the years since al-Asiri killed his brother, a strange thing happened: through a combination of intelligence derring-do and (likely more important) al-Asiri’s own incompetence, every plot concocted by the master Yemeni bomb-maker failed. The underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, wasn’t able to detonate his device, a screw-up that many analysts blamed on Abdulmutallab himself. A plot to blow up cargo jets with weaponized inkjet cartridges was foiled. No laptops laden with plastic explosives appeared. It is possible, of course, that this list of failures—well-publicized by an American leadership interested in inflating the AQAP threat—is only part of a longer litany, one that contains classified stories of CIA successes that can never be told. An old, self-pitying intelligence adage goes that the agency’s successes are never public, only its failures.
The civil war grinds on, tens of thousands are dead, millions face starvation and disease, and we are implicated in it all.
And yet this is still a story of failure—of American foreign policy as well of al-Asiri himself. It’s puzzling that al-Asiri’s legend only grew, granting him the epithet of “master bomb[-]maker” and “most dangerous terrorist alive.” But as we hunted men like him and Anwar al-Awlaki (and his children), the United States became deeply involved in the proliferating, brutal conflicts in Yemen, and we found ourselves in need of villains commensurate with that war’s painfully absent sense of purpose. For if you take a minute to read up on U.S. involvement in Yemen, none of it makes strategic or moral sense. The United States is fighting al-Qaeda even as it’s paying al-Qaeda members to join the Saudi-UAE coalition in the war against the Houthis. As Saudi Arabia massacres Yemenis with U.S.-assisted airstrikes, their Emirati allies run torture prisons; and AQAP, which now numbers 6,000 to 7,000 fighters, rules whole towns, providing government-like services. (The AP recently ran a useful investigation into the tangled, and often remunerative, relationship between AQAP and the United States.) The civil war grinds on, tens of thousands are dead, millions face starvation and disease. We are implicated in it all.
But take heart, fellow Americans—one more bad guy has been picked off. Here’s another name to cross off your bingo card, to be replaced by someone else of equal or greater menace. Ibrahim al-Asiri may never have killed any Americans, but for a while it sure seemed like he could. And in the ongoing fantasia that is the global war on terror, what matters isn’t what happens—only the authoritarian fear of what could be.