By Alison Gendar and Helen Kennedy
U.S. counterterror officials believe they killed the mastermind of a new underwear bomb plot during a Sunday CIA drone attack in Yemen, officials briefed on the strike said.
Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, one of America's Most Wanted terrorists, was scheming to bring down a U.S.-bound jetliner with a new and improved version of the underwear bomb, two counterterror officials told the Daily News.
Quso's plan was first reported by The Associated Press on Monday.
The underwear plot, planned for around last week's anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was being hatched in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Quso, who was indicted in New York Federal Court for his role in the destroyer Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors in 2000, recently became operations manager of AQAP -- a particularly violent faction of the terror franchise.
Quso, 37, was on the FBI's Most Wanted list and had a $5 million bounty on his head.
The Associated Press said it learned of the thwarted plot to blow up a plane last week, but agreed to a White House request not to publish the news because the sensitive intelligence operation against Quso and AQAP was still under way.
Quso was killed on Sunday by a missile fired by an unmanned CIA drone as he stepped out of a vehicle in a remote valley in the south of Yemen, Yemeni officials said.
He is the latest in a string of top terror figures to be obliterated in the Obama administration's controversial drone campaign.
Quso had stepped into the operations job to replace Anwar al-Awlaki, another Most Wanted terrorist who was killed by a drone in November -- not far from where Quso died Sunday.
Quso had consulted in Yemen with the previous underwear bomber, who had a crude device that failed to detonate on a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Quso had commissioned Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the same Al Qaeda bombmaker who created the 2009 bomb, to come up with a "sleeker, less cumbersome, closer-to-the-body" explosive that would not be detected in airport screening, a law enforcement source told the Daily News.
The device also featured a more sophisticated and reliable detonating system.
The new would-be suicide bomber had not yet been assigned a target or bought plane tickets when the CIA seized the device, officials said.
U.S. counterterror officials were examining the metal-free device to see if new body scanners deployed at the nation's airports would have detected the bomb.
Authorities said terror outfits routinely try to create weapons that can be slipped past security checkpoints -- and have even found evidence of operatives crudely implanting explosives inside the body through surgery.
U.S. officials suspect there may be similar new and improved underwear bombs being eyed -- or are already in the grasp -- of AQAP.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said President Obama was informed of the plot last month and was assured the device posed no threat to the public.
"The FBI currently has possession of the (bomb) and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it," the government said in a statement.
Long Island Rep. Pete King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said there was no link to the Bin Laden anniversary.
"It is an ongoing investigation involving several countries and is a very important operation," King said.
Officials said the foiling of the plot was a significant victory, but a sober reminder that terrorists never stop scheming.
"The disruption of this IED plot underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad," Hayden said.
Asiri, the Al Qaeda bombmaker, also constructed bombs built into printer cartridges that were shipped to the U.S. on cargo planes in 2010 and almost caused another catastrophe -- but were detected before they became operational.
And he put a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onto a Christmas Day 2009 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with plastic explosives sewn into his underpants.
Abdulmutallab tried to detonate the makeshift bomb on approach to Detroit but only managed to set his leg on fire.
Abdulmutallab was sentenced in February to four consecutive life sentences plus 50 years.