US officials say FBI has foiled a plot by al-Qaeda in Yemen to detonate an upgraded version of the failed 2009 “underwear bomb”.
The device was seized in the Middle East following a CIA operation in Yemen and is now being studied by the FBI.
Reports say no target had been chosen and no plane tickets purchased by the time the alleged plot was foiled.
Officials say there was never any risk to the public. It is not clear what has happened to the would-be bomber.
Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the US House of Representatives, said counter-terrorism officials had told him: “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
The officials revealed that the would-be bomber was alive, but would not say whether he was in foreign custody, Peter King added.
US officials said the device had been seized in an unspecified Middle Eastern country outside Yemen within the last 10 days.
“As a result of close co-operation with our security and intelligence partners overseas, an improvised explosive device (IED) designed to carry out a terrorist attack has been seized abroad,” the FBI said.
“Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations,” it added.
President Barack Obama was first informed of the plot in April, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, adding the device had not posed a threat to the public.
The plot, disrupted as a result of US co-operation with other unnamed intelligence agencies, appears to have been caught at a relatively early stage – after the making of the bomb, but before the public was put at risk.
“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,” Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Monday.
Officials said it appeared that AQAP leaders in Yemen had instructed a suicide bomber to board any flight of his choosing to the US with the bomb under his clothes, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport.
It is not clear who built the device, but officials said it shared some features with the bomb sewn into the underwear of would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
The Nigerian was arrested when his device failed to explode fully while on a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
A US intelligence official said the latest device bore the “hallmarks” of the 2009 underwear bomb, which was built by the Saudi militant, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
It seems it is an improved model, with a more effective detonation system; it has no metal parts and probably would not have been detected by most airport security magnetometers.
It is not even clear if it would have been found by the body scanners that have been installed in some US airports after that attempted attack three years ago.
Abdulmutallab’s “underwear bomb” was not detected during security checks at airports in Lagos, Nigeria, and Amsterdam before he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 for Detroit.
On the flight, the bomb did not detonate fully and passengers had to put out the fire. He has been sentenced to life in prison.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said air security would continue to incorporate threat and vulnerability analysis, pre-screening and screening of passengers, as well as random searches at airports, air marshals and other unspecified security measures.
It added: “We have no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the US at this time, although we continue to monitor efforts by al-Qaeda and its affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks, both in the homeland and abroad.”
News of the operation emerged shortly after the US marked one year since the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
It also comes one day after Fahd al-Quso, an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, was killed by a US drone strike.
The US had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Fahd al-Quso’s capture or death.
The Yemeni government has stepped up its battle against AQAP since Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down as president in November.
However, the group and its allies still control large parts of the country.