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Again the U.S. stepped up its response. The Pentagon had launched four drone strikes in Yemen in 2010, killing 10 AQAP militants and six civilians; in 2011 it bumped it up to 10 strikes, killing 81 AQAP militants and, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks credible media reports of U.S. drone strikes, no civilians. One of those killed in September 2011 was the U.S.-born cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Killed two weeks later at an outdoor restaurant in southern Yemen was al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, also an American. For a few months in late 2011, the U.S. thought it might have killed al-Asiri and al-Shihri in those attacks, but now they believe the two went to ground. In early 2012, AQAP published a video claiming it had executed three Yemenis suspected of having placed tracking chips on vehicles that allowed them to be targeted by American drones. U.S. hopes of finding al-Asiri dwindled, but he remained active.
In April 2012, Obama was briefed on a top-secret mission to thwart the latest al-Asiri plot. Recruited by British and Saudi intelligence, a double agent had penetrated AQAP. The agent had been given a British passport by his handlers to make him especially attractive to al-Asiri, since it would allow the agent to more easily board a U.S.-bound plane. Over several months, the agent followed the footsteps of Abdulmutallab and made his way closer and closer to al-Asiri. In May he received from al-Asiri the newly designed underwear bomb and instructions "to get on a plane from a safe airport," says Pistole, and to "blow himself up over the U.S."
In late April, as the anniversary of bin Laden's death approached, the AP reported that U.S. officials thought al-Asiri and AQAP were at work again. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no known credible threats of terrorist attacks associated with the anniversary. On May 7, the AP reported the thwarted plot, and the issue became an election-year scandal. At first the Administration was accused of trying to play down the threat, and Brennan and others said publicly that no Americans had been at risk. Within weeks, Obama's 2008 rival, John McCain, was making the opposite charge, accusing the Administration of intentionally leaking information about the plot to bolster Obama's political prospects. Ultimately the response to this latest AQAP bomb plot came in the U.S.: on June 9, 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that U.S. attorney Ronald Machen would investigate the leak of the latest underwear-bomb plot to the AP.
Lessons of the Hunt
The hunt for al-Asiri has been enormously successful by one measure: AQAP is foundering and on the run. It has lost its safe haven in Abyan province and elsewhere in Yemen. Reports from the region quoted tribal leaders as saying that after al-Shihri's death, the group's remaining leaders feared they were in imminent danger from U.S. infiltrators.