Yesterday afternoon the Associated Press broke a story about a bomb plot from Yemen, revealing relatively few but still tantalizing details about a plot we still know little about. (ABC news is now report that a double agent with the ranks of AQAP - likely working for Muhammad bin Nayif in Saudi Arabia - managed to smuggle the bomb out of Yemen and into Saudi Arabia where it was eventually turned over to the US.)
Much of the early reporting has focused on Ibrahim Asiri, who appears to be the individual who built the bomb. Asiri is the same individual who constructed the bomb used in the 2009 Christmas Day plot, which targeted an airliner over Detroit. He also built the two used in parcel bomb plot in 2010 and he was responsible for the bomb his younger brother, Abdullah, used in an assassination attempt against Muhammad bin Nayif in 2009.
Given this history, US officials are right to be worried about Asiri. But I'm a little concerned that they seem to be making Asiri out to be someone with a unique set of skills. (I have much more on Asiri's life in Saudi and Yemen in a forthcoming publication, but for the moment some brief background.)
Asiri is a college dropout who has been in Yemen for nearly six years - not exactly an exceptional resume. We know almost nothing about him until 2009, but since then he has consistently been portrayed as terrorist mastermind capable of building bombs that can defeat western defenses.
I think it is safe to assume that in the nearly six years that he has been in Yemen he has trained other individuals to replace him if he were to be killed. It is unlikely that Asiri is the only bombmaker AQAP has within its ranks - he is just the only name we know.
But by talking about him as an individual instead of AQAP as a group intelligence officials can give the impression that if the US could only kill Asiri air travelers would no longer have to worry about underwear bombs from Yemen. This, I believe, is false.
This is the same idea that led some to believe that the US would no longer be targeted if it could only kill al-Awlaki. And why some appear to be surprised that AQAP is stronger and just as eager to attack the US now that Awlaki is dead.
I'm not saying personalities don't matter in AQAP - they do. After all, it was Wihayshi and Raymi who resurrected al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2006. Counterfactuals are tough, but it is difficult to imagine AQAP without Wihayshi - he has stamped his organization in his own image.
But still to focus on individual at the expense of the broader picture is a mistake. This is why I believe using people killed as a measure of success in a war like the one the US is in against AQAP. Victory is fleeting when terrorists are quickly replaced.
Taking such a narrow view of AQAP and believing that the individuals we in the west know about have an exceptional set of skills that aren't possessed by their colleagues whose identity we don't know gives the US a mistaken impression of its success in this war. And this is why US officials say foolish things like al-Qaeda is only a handful of operatives away from being defeated.