What does the bomb plot tell us about our intelligence services?

A forensic officer removes a package from a UPS container at East Midlands Airport in 2010. Photo: Reuters

When Britain received intelligence that a bomb had been placed in the cargo of a plane in 2010 the police simply couldn’t find it.

The bomb was so well concealed, in the ink cartridge of a printer without any trace of explosive, that even bomb detecting equipment failed.

On that day a message was sent back to the intelligence source that provided the tip-off, saying that the information must be wrong.

But the Saudi Arabian source insisted, even providing the cargo number, and finally the bomb was found sitting in the hold of a plane at East Midlands airport.

That story of the bomb the British couldn’t find illustrates the sophistication of the bomb-making ‘factory’ run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Now U.S. intelligence claims to have foiled attempts by the group to make a new device that would be even more effective at overcoming western security defences.

The explosive material hidden inside a printer cartridge inside a cargo plane in 2010. Credit: Reuters

This time the bomb was even more difficult to detect than the one that was sewn into the underpants of a would be bomber in 2009. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s device got through security but failed to go off as his plane came into land in Detroit.

The latest plan, according to reports, involved a detonation mechanism that was ‘totally non-metallic’. Crucially it would not register when passing through airport metal detectors. Presumably that would mean it could be more effective.

So what does all this tell us? The chief bomb maker is thought to be a man called Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Such is his ideological zeal at one stage he is said to have planted a bomb in his own brother’s body for a suicide attack.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants bomb from Christmas Day in 2009. Credit: Reuters

Al-Asiri was thought to have been killed in a drone strike in the Yemen, but he may still be alive. Plus there are suggestions that the latest device might have been made by someone he has trained.

Clearly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are still a serious threat and are perhaps making moves to ensure that if their chief bomb maker is killed it would not prevent them launching attacks.

Today’s reports also provide evidence that al-Qaeda are still as obsessed as ever with attacking passenger planes.

That said, if the reports are correct, it suggests that U.S. intelligence, and those it works with, are well connected within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When Abdulmutallab ‘got through’ to the U.S. there was deep concern that he had not been detected.

Today’s news suggests that since then U.S. intelligence has moved on significantly as it works to tackle the threat from al-Qaeda.