The man al Qaeda hoped would carry out an attack on a U.S. bound airliner with an improved bomb was actually working for the CIA and Saudi intelligence.
The spy infiltrated an al Qaeda cell in Yemen, discovered the plot, and then stole the bomb. Intelligence officials say the operation was an amazing feat.
"It's quite an accomplishment to be able to pass yourself off as an al Qaeda terrorist to the terrorists, when in fact you're working for a U.S. or allied intelligence agency," said Richard Clarke, a national security official for the Clinton Administration.
He added that the bomb will provide information critical to stopping future terror attacks.
"By having the bomb in its original state, before it goes off, U.S. experts are now able to figure out how the bomb works...how it might be detected," Clarke said.
The FBI is still analyzing the explosive but officials described it as an upgrade over the Christmas Day bomb. This new device contained lead azide, a chemical known as a reliable detonator. After the Christmas attack failed, al Qaeda used lead azide as the detonator in the 2010 plot against cargo planes.
Security procedures at U.S. airports Tuesday remained unchanged despite the plot, a reflection of both the U.S. confidence in its security systems and a recognition that the government can't realistically expect travelers to endure much more.
Increased costs and delays to airlines and shipping companies from new security measures could have a global economic impact, too.
Meanwhile, a new Congressional report shows screening devices used to detect bombs and detonating devices in luggage are not being used.
The report says $184 million worth of airport security equipment is in storage, waiting to be installed.