PARIS (Reuters) - The thwarting of an al Qaeda plot involving a non-metallic bomb shows that safety operations begin with strong intelligence and full-body scanners at airports are not the only tool to fight increasingly sophisticated threats, the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security said on Friday.
Janet Napolitano said in an interview with Reuters that a "multi-layered" strategy against militant groups included cooperation between spy agencies, good intelligence as well as looking at travel patterns and the behavior of passengers at airports.
"If we have good intelligence, a lot of safety operations can spring from that," Napolitano, in Paris to meet with French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, told Reuters.
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies acquired an explosive device in late April or early May that U.S. officials believed Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, had intended to introduce aboard an aircraft bound for the United States or another Western country.
The device was an improved version of the "underwear bomb" of a failed Christmas Day, 2009 airline bombing attempt, U.S. officials said.
The new device raised concerns that bomb-detection technology at airports could fall short. U.S. officials said that metal detectors used in many airports would likely not have picked up on that threat, and many major hubs in and outside the United States are not equipped with body scanners able to find traces of explosives.
"The foiling of that AQAP plot illustrated again the international cooperation that has to occur in the aviation environment, and it begins with good intelligence," she said in the interview at the U.S. embassy.
"The body-scanners are extraordinarily helpful for non-metallic devices but they are not the only thing that can help with detection."
The U.S. Transport Security Administration had issued new directives to strengthen security for planes carrying passengers and cargo in the wake of the plot, Napolitano said, declining to detail the measures.
Asked to describe the bomb, which U.S. officials said never got near a plane, she said it was "more sophisticated" than the one used in the 2009 plot and "very potent".
"(It) could have been very destructive if it had actually been detonated at the right place in the plane, if the plane was at the right altitude," she said.
The device, which is being examined by the FBI, bore the hallmarks of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi militant who is believed to be a bombmaker working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. officials have said.
(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)
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