The intelligence community says the operation was a team effort that included multiple agencies of the U.S. government and several different countries around the world.
"What this incident makes clear is that this country has to continue to remain vigilant against those that would seek to attack this country," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The FBI says the plot involved a bomb similar to the failed underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to use on Christmas 2009, but with a sophisticated new design.
Al Qaeda bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who designed Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb, was again the mastermind of the plot, according to U.S. and other intelligence sources.
ABC News has learned that would-be bomber was under surveillance for some time before agents took him into custody. The suspect had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA seized the bomb.
Government sources told ABC News that no Americans were ever at risk.
The FBI is examining the bomb to see if it could have passed through airport security, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, so it was likely it could have passed through an airport metal detector. It was unclear whether body scanners would have detected it.
President Barack Obama was first informed of the plot in April and received regular updates from his national security team, according to Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council deputy spokeswoman.
"While the President was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack," Hayden said in a statement. "The disruption of this IED plot underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad."
Concern about this plot led the U.S. to order scores of air marshals to Europe to protect against U.S.-bound aircraft. U.S. officials say flights out of Gatwick Airport in Britain and elsewhere received 100 percent coverage, with air marshals on every flight.