CIA thwarts al Qaeda plot timed near bin Laden anniversary

The CIA broke up an attempt by al Qaeda to blow up a commercial airliner destined for the United States, according to the National Security Council.

CIA agents uncovered the plot, in which an al Qaeda suicide bomber planned to detonate explosives concealed in his underwear once the airliner crossed over into American airspace. The attack was intended to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. 

President Obama was first informed of the impending attack in April by White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, Deputy National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Monday. 

Since then, the president "has received regular updates and briefings as needed from his national security team" on the ongoing investigation, she said. 

"The president was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public [and] he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack," Hayden added.

News of the terrorist plot comes after a heated political debate surrounding the anniversary of bin Laden's death. 

Obama's reelection campaign last week touted the president's decision to send a team of Navy SEALs to Pakistan to kill bin Laden, and argued that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision. 

That earned criticism from Republicans, who argued Obama was spiking the football and dividing the country over an anniversary that should have united Americans. Romney also argued that any president would have made the decision to go after bin Laden. 

The fight has continued to percolate this week, with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff questioning why it took Obama so long to order the raid into Pakistan. 

Obama also visited Afghanistan on Wednesday to mark the anniversary and sign an agreement with that country's government on the security relationship between the two countries after the exit of U.S. troops. 

The would-be bomber was based in Yemen and had not bought a ticket when CIA agents stepped in and took the bomb, according to The Associated Press, which first reported on the incident. The AP learned of the attack last week, it said, but agreed to requests from the CIA and the White House to delay publication.

The bomber was advised to board any U.S.-bound flight and detonate the explosives at his or her discretion, officials said, according to the AP. No information was available on the whereabouts of the bomber.

FBI agents have recovered the device and are conducting a battery of technical and forensic tests, according to a bureau statement issued Monday. 

"Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to [bombs] that have been used previously by [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations," according to the statement. 

A similar device was found on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al Qaeda operative who attempted to set off his deadly ordnance over Detroit in 2009, officials said. 

"The device never presented a threat to public safety, and the U.S. government is working closely with international partners to address associated concerns with the device," the statement adds. 

The Department of Homeland Security has not picked up any "specific or credible information" of additional terror plots targeted at the United States tied to the foiled bombing attempt, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said Monday. 

However, the department is implementing "a risk-based, layered approach to ensure the security of the traveling public," including threat and vulnerability analysis, pre-screening and screening of passengers, random airport searches searches at airports and federal air marshal coverage, according to Chandler. 

Recently declassified letters found by U.S. special operations forces in bin Laden's Pakistani hideout show the al Qaeda chieftain was plotting an attack against President Obama and Gen. David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

He wanted to target the airplanes that were known to be carrying the two U.S. leaders, according to the letters.

— Story updated at 5:38 p.m. to add comments from the National Security Council, FBI and Department of Homeland Security.