British spy cracked al-Qaeda underpants bomb plot
AN UNDERCOVER agent who foiled an al-Qaeda plot to blow up an airliner with an underwear bomb is a British national, it is reported.
UK intelligence was said to have been "heavily involved" in recruiting the spy who infiltrated a terror group in Yemen, in a rare coup for Western agencies.
Quoting sources briefed by Saudi counter-terrorism officials, US television networks said the individual grew up in Europe where he was apparently radicalised.
He was subsequently "turned" and recruited by Saudi agents last year, they said.
The reports were neither being confirmed nor denied in the UK.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is believed to have been planning the spectacular attack with a nearly-undetectable device around the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden.
But the individual chosen to carry out the attack was an informant who handed over the bomb.
US officials said the would-be bomber was supposed to board a plane to the US and detonate the device inside the country. The CIA became aware of the plot last month.
Revelations of UK involvement in the successful sting operation will not be welcomed in this country for fear it could jeopardise recruitment for similar efforts in the future.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the British passport holder was recruited by MI5 before being sent to Yemen to target al-Asiri by MI6 working with Saudi intelligence.
He fled with the device two weeks ago, travelling to the United Arab Emirates and on to Saudi Arabia before delivering it to British handlers, the newspaper said.
It also suggested that information he supplied was used to launch a CIA drone strike which killed senior AQAP figure Fahd al-Quso but failed to remove al-Qaeda bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.
Within hours of that strike, militants killed 20 soldiers in an assault on a Yemeni army base.
FBI experts are examining the bomb from the latest foiled plot to see if it could have passed through security and been taken on to a plane.
Officials said it was an upgrade on one which failed to detonate on a flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Both were designed to be carried in a passenger's underwear, but the latest version contained a more advanced detonation system.
The 2009 bomb, and an incident the following year when terrorists smuggled bombs on to cargo jets, were believed to have been the work of al-Asiri in Yemen.
Officials believe the latest bomb - details of which became public on Monday night - could have been produced by al-Asiri or one of his proteges.
The threat from al-Qaeda-linked groups in Yemen was thrust into the public spotlight after the failed 2009 Detroit attack which aimed to kill 300.
Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former engineering student at University College London, was jailed for life earlier this year for the botched attempt.
Then prime minister Gordon Brown convened a summit in London within weeks of the incident to discuss ways to tackle the growing menace of Yemen-based groups.
The country was also the origin of a bombs hidden inside printer cartridges and designed to detonate in mid-air - one of which was found on a cargo aircraft at East Midlands airport.
Terrorist leaders have more recently exploited the political turmoil engulfing the country to reinforce its presence and use it increasingly as a base for plots against western targets.
Washington only recently restarted co-operation suspended in the aftermath of the uprising.
In 2010, in the first public speech by a serving MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers praised the "extraordinary courage and idealism" of its agents but stressed the need for secrecy.
"Our agents are working today in some of the most dangerous and exposed places, bravely and to hugely valuable effect, and we owe a debt to countless more whose service is over," he said.
"Agents take serious risks and make sacrifices to help our country. In return, we give them a solemn pledge: that we shall keep their role secret."