It’s Time to Stop Talking About Terrorists as If They’re Diabolical Geniuses

Even if Ibrahim al-Asiri is really dead, what does it mean for al-Qaeda and the threat it poses to America?

Two members of al-Qaeda's Nusra Front in Syria hold weapons while standing in a ditch.
Members of al-Qaeda's Nusra Front in Syria (Hosam Katan / Reuters)

The video, shot from a respectful distance, shows the two brothers embracing one last time, somewhere on the Yemeni side of the border. They had crossed this same border three years earlier, fleeing from Saudi authorities and looking for a jihad to join. Now the younger brother was heading back to Saudi Arabia on a suicide mission, carrying a bomb his brother had built for him.

At the time the video was filmed, in the summer of 2009, the world didn’t yet know the name Ibrahim al-Asiri, but it soon would.

He has been called al-Qaeda’s “master bomb maker” and an “evil genius.” He is the reason we pass through body scanners at the airport, and why laptops were banned on several international flights last year. In 2013, Time magazine labeled him “the most dangerous terrorist in the world,” and this week the United States said it is confident that he is now dead. But al-Asiri has been declared dead before. In 2011, the United States said that he was killed in the same drone strike that took out Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American radical imam; in 2013, he was said to be seriously wounded; and in 2014, he was dead again.

Each time, however, al-Asiri reappeared, showing up in a video or releasing an audio recording. And there are reasons to be skeptical of these latest claims as well. First, U.S. officials said he was killed in a drone strike at some point in the second half of 2017. This would have been on the Trump administration’s watch, but until this week no one in the Trump administration had taken credit for what many would see as a major counterterrorism victory. Indeed, all of the reporting on al-Asiri’s death can be traced back to a single line in a recent United Nations report that said a member state believed that al-Asiri “may have been killed.” Another reason for skepticism is that al-Qaeda has yet to announce al-Asiri’s death, which is standard practice for the group.

But if the intelligence is correct, if this time al-Asiri really is dead, what does it mean for al-Qaeda and the threat it poses to America? Will the loss of al-Asiri degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities? Are we safer now in the sky than we were last year? In other words, was Ibrahim al-Asiri truly as clever as we have been led to believe, a man the former acting director of the CIA called “the most sophisticated terrorist bomb maker on the planet”? Or was he just one more terrorist who threatened the United States for a while before being killed and replaced by someone else?

Al-Asiri’s first attack, the one in which his younger brother, Abdullah, served as the suicide bomber, may well have been his most successful. Posing as a repentant jihadi eager to take advantage of an amnesty offer from the Saudi government, Abdullah arranged for an audience with Saudi Arabia’s then–minister of the interior and later crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef. During the meeting, the younger al-Asiri detonated the bomb, which he had inserted into his rectum to avoid detection. The bomber’s body absorbed most of the blast, and the prince escaped with what were described as “minor injuries.”

Learning from this, Ibrahim al-Asiri tried again a few months later. This time, the bomb was sewn into a pair of special underwear and given to a Nigerian student who attempted to detonate it on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. But as with his first plot, something went wrong: This time it was the fuse, which had degraded to the point that the underwear bomber succeeded only in setting his own pants on fire.

The next year it was a pair of parcel bombs, which al-Asiri designed and had shipped to two synagogues in the United States. Both were intercepted before they could reach their destinations. In 2012, al-Asiri’s next creation was handed off to a would-be suicide bomber, who turned out to be a double agent working for Britain and Saudi Arabia. More recently, U.S. officials worried that al-Asiri may have been working on surgically implanting explosives in the bodies of would-be bombers as well as placing bombs in laptops and tablets.

But for all the close calls—poorly placed bombs, bad fuses, and life-saving intelligence—not one of al-Asiri’s international plots succeeded. On the surface, al-Asiri was not even that impressive. Born in 1982, he studied chemistry for a while at King Saud University, in Riyadh, before dropping out of college to join a cell determined to fight the Americans in Iraq. Saudi authorities broke up the cell and arrested him. It was only after he was released that he traveled to Yemen in 2006 and, in the space of a few short years, became a terrorist who changed the way we travel.

But al-Asiri is not unique. He is simply the name we know. Indeed, after residing in Yemen for more than a decade, spending much of that time on the run from U.S. drones, it is almost certain that he has trained multiple aspiring bomb makers to eventually replace him.

That is the problem with personalizing the war against groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: We inflate our enemies into larger-than-life villains who reflect our fears rather than their own capabilities. We did it with Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, and now we are doing it with Ibrahim al-Asiri. By talking about them as masterminds with irreplaceable skillsets, the United States projects the mistaken impression that if they could only be killed, the terrorist threat would be greatly reduced. Bin Laden and al-Awlaki are dead. Yet al-Qaeda lives on.

We will likely soon know if al-Asiri is dead for sure this time. But regardless of the answer, al-Qaeda will survive and the threat will persist. The United States isn’t phasing out body scanners, and sometime soon another threat will add yet another item to the list of those passengers are banned from taking onboard.

For nearly 17 years we have talked about terrorists as if they were superhuman, the “worst of the worst,” diabolical geniuses capable of defeating all our defenses from distant caves. It is well past time for us to talk about them as they are. In al-Asiri’s case that is as a college dropout who tried to attack America and its allies multiple times, but failed each time. His successors, whenever they appear, will try again.