Al Qaeda number 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri Killed by Assassins in Iran

Al Qaeda's No. 2, U.S. accused.

Embassy Shootings, Murdered in Iran

Israeli agents shot Abu Muhammad al-Masri on Tehran's streets at the behest of the U.S., officials said, but no one — Iran, Al-Qaeda, the U.S., or Israel — officially confirmed the shooting.

Al Qaeda's commander, suspected of being one of the masterminds of the deadly 1998 attacks on American embassies in Africa, was killed three months ago in Iran, intelligence officials reported.

The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, was bombed in 1998, one of two attacks attributed to Qaeda leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, was bombed in 1998, one of two attacks attributed to Qaeda leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri.

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who goes by the name of war Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was shot down in Tehran by two motorcycle assassins on Aug. 7, the anniversary of the embassy attacks. He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, son Hamza bin Laden's widow.

The attack was carried out by U.S.-led Israeli agents, according to four officials. It is uncertain what position the United States, which had followed Mr. al-Masri and other Qaeda agents in Iran for years, played if any.

The killing happened in such a netherworld of spycraft of diplomatic intrigue and counter-terrorism that the death of Mr. al-Masri had been speculated, but never verified. Al Qaeda has not reported the death of one of its top figures, Iranian authorities covered it up, and no government has officially claimed responsibility for it.

Mr. al-Masri, who was about 58 years old, was one of the founder fathers of Al Qaeda and was considered to be first in line after his new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The F.B.I. needed a poster for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who goes by war name Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
The F.B.I. needed a poster for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who goes by war name Abu Muhammad al-Masri.

Long featured on F.B.I.'s Most Wanted Terrorist list, he was convicted in the U.S. with offences linked to U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring hundreds. The F.B.I. promised a $10 million reward for details leading to his arrest, and his photo was on the Most Wanted list as of Friday.

It was shocking that he lived in Iran, as Iran and Al Qaeda are bitter rivals. Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadist organization, battled on Iraq and other battlefields.

American intelligence officials say Mr. al-Masri had been in Iran's "custody" since 2003, but had lived openly in Tehran's Pasdaran district, an affluent suburb, since at least 2015.

About 9:00 a.m. on a warm summer night, when two gunmen on a motorcycle drew up beside him, he was driving his white Renault L90 sedan with his daughter. A silencer-fitted revolver fired five bullets. Four shots came into the driver's side and a fifth struck a nearby vehicle.

As the shooting broke news, Iran's official news media named the victims as Lebanese history professor Habib Daoud and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam. MTV and social media pages associated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps claimed that Mr. Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-backed militant group.

It seemed probable.

The killing came in the middle of a summer of regular bombings in Iran, rising tensions with the United States, days after a major blast in Beirut harbor, and a week before the UN Security Council proposed extending an arms embargo on Iran. There was talk that the killing may have been a Western provocation meant to cause a violent Iranian response before the Security Council vote.

And two gunmen's planned killing on a motorcycle matched the modus operandi of earlier Israeli nuclear scientist assassinations. It also appeared meaningful that Israel would kill a Hezbollah official committed to fighting Israel, but that Israel deliberately avoided killing Hezbollah agents so as not to cause a battle.

There was simply no Habib Daoud.

Several Lebanese with close links to Iran said they hadn't learned about him or his death. A search of Lebanese news media finds no mentions of an Iranian history professor killed last summer. And an educational researcher with links to lists of all country history professors said there was no record of Habib Daoud.

One of the intelligence officials said Habib Daoud was a pseudonym Iranian officials gave Mr. al-Masri a cover story. In October, Egypt's former Islamic Jihad leader, Nabil Naeem, who called Mr. al-Masri a lifetime friend, told Saudi news channel Al Arabiya the same thing.

Iran may have had reasonable justification to conceal the fact that it harbored an avowed adversary, but it was less obvious why Iranian officials took the chief of Qaeda to begin with.

Some terrorist experts indicated that holding Qaeda officials in Tehran might provide some insurance that the group would not work within Iran. American counter-terrorism officials say Iran may have allowed them to keep working against the U.S., a shared foe.

It wouldn't be the first time Iran joined hands with Sunni militants, endorsing Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban.

"Iran uses sectarianism as a cudgel where it serves the government, but is still able to ignore the Sunni-Shia divide when it suits Iranian needs," said Soufan Center counter-terrorism analyst Colin P. Clarke.

Iran has repeatedly refused Qaeda officials accommodation. In 2018, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said some Qaeda members had reached Iran because of Iran's long, porous border with Afghanistan, but were arrested and returned to their home countries.

Western intelligence officials, however, said the Iranian government had kept the Qaeda leaders under house arrest, and then negotiated at least two agreements with Al Qaeda to release some in 2011 and 2015.

While Al Qaeda has been dominated by the Islamic State's growth in recent years, it remains resilient and has active branches worldwide, a U.N. Concluded July counter-terrorism report.

Hamza bin Laden's
Hamza bin Laden's

Iranian officials did not answer this article's request for comment. But Iranian state-run media quoted Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, as vigorously denying the involvement of Qaeda members in Iran. He warned American media not to slip into senior American and Israeli officials' "Hollywood script" trap.

Speakers for the Israeli prime minister's office and the Trump administration's National Security Council failed to comment.

Mr. al-Masri was a long-time member of Al Qaeda's highly classified management committee, along with Saif al-Adl, who was also at one point in Iran. The pair was part of a group of senior Qaeda leaders who took shelter in Iran after the 9/11 attacks on the US forced them to leave Afghanistan, along with Hamza bin Laden, who was being groomed to take over the organisation.

According to a highly-classified U.S. paper. In 2008, Mr. al-Masri was the most competent and qualified tactical strategist not in U.S. or allied custody." The document identified him as the "recent preparation leader" who "acted closely" with Mr. al-Adl.

According to jihadists, Mr. al-Masri mentored Hamza bin Laden in Iran. Hamza bin Laden married Miriam's daughter, Mr. al-Masri.

"Hamza bin Ladin's marriage wasn't Abu Muhammad's only dynastic relation forged in detention," former F.B.I. agent and Qaeda specialist Ali Soufan wrote in a 2019 report for West Point's Countering Terrorism Hub.

Another of Mr. al-daughters Masri's married Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, no engagement, board member. In 2015, he was allowed to flee Iran and killed in 2017 by a U.S. drone attack in Syria. He was then second-ranked Qaeda official after Mr. Zawahri.

In 2011, Iran released Hamza and other Bin Laden family members in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan. Last year the White House said that a counter-terrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area killed Hamza bin Laden.

Abu Muhammad al-Masri was born in 1963 in Al Gharbiya, northern Egypt. He was a professional soccer player in Egypt's top division, according to affidavits submitted in cases in the U.S. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he joined the jihadist movement to support Afghan forces.

After 10 years later, the Soviets withdrawn, Egypt declined to let Mr. al-Masri back. He remained in Afghanistan, ultimately joining Bin Laden in the group that later became Al Qaeda's founding nucleus. He was the group's seventh of its 170 members.

He traveled with Bin Laden in the early 1990s to Khartoum, Sudan, where he started creating military cells. He also went to Somalia to support militia loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aid. There, he trained Somali guerrillas using shoulder-borne rocket launchers against helicopters, training they used in Mogadishu's 1993 war to shoot down a pair of American helicopters in what is now known as the Black Hawk Down assault.

"When Al Qaeda started carrying out terrorist attacks in the late 1990s, al-Masri was one of Bin Laden's three closest allies, acting as director of the organization's operations department," said Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Tel Aviv Center for National Security Studies' Terrorism Programme. "He took know-how and commitment with him and has since been involved in a significant part of the organization's activities, with focus on Africa."

Shortly after the Mogadishu war, Bin Laden put Mr. al-Masri in charge of preparing operations against African objectives. Plotting a spectacular, ambitious plan that like the 9/11 attacks, dominated world interest, they planned to jointly strike two comparatively well-defended sites in different countries.

One of the American Black Hawk helicopters shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 by Mr. al-fighters Masri's
One of the American Black Hawk helicopters shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 by Mr. al-fighters Masri's

Shortly after 10:30 On 7 August 1998, two explosive trucks pulled in front of US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Nearby explosions incinerated civilians, blasted walls off homes, and smashed blocks of glass.

In 2000, Mr. al-Masri became one of nine members of Al Qaeda's governing council, heading the military preparation of the group.

He also continued to direct African activities, according to a former Israeli intelligence official, and ordered the 2002 attack in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 Kenyans and three Israeli visitors.

By 2003, Mr. al-Masri fled to Iran among many Qaeda leaders who while hostile to the group, appeared out of American reach.

"They thought the U.S. would find it very difficult to move against them," said Mr. Schweitzer. "And because they assumed that the Iranian regime's prospects of trading with the Americans that would require their heads were very slim."

Mr. al-Masri was one of the few high-ranking members to survive the American hunt for 9/11 suspects and other threats. As he and other leaders fled to Iran, they were briefly kept under house arrest.

In 2015, Iran announced a deal with Al Qaeda freeing five leaders of the group, including Mr. al-Masri, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen.

In 2002, Mr. al-Masri ordered an attack in Mombasa, Kenya that killed 13 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.
In 2002, Mr. al-Masri ordered an attack in Mombasa, Kenya that killed 13 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.

Mr. Abdullah's footsteps faded, but he managed to remain in Tehran under the protection of the Revolutionary Guards and later the Ministry of Intelligence and Defense, according to one of the intelligence officers. He was permitted to fly abroad, often to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.

Some American observers said the death of Mr. al-Masri would break ties between one of the last original Qaeda founders and the new generation of Islamist fighters, who grew up after Bin Laden's 2011 death.

"If real, this further cuts ties between old-school Al Qaeda and new jihad," said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, former National Counter-Terrorism Center chief. "This adds to the Al Qaeda movement's fracturing and decentralization."

After 10 years later, the Soviets withdrawn, Egypt declined to let Mr. al-Masri back. He remained in Afghanistan, ultimately joining Bin Laden in the group that later became Al Qaeda's founding nucleus. He was the group's seventh of its 170 members.

He traveled with Bin Laden in the early 1990s to Khartoum, Sudan, where he started creating military cells. He also went to Somalia to support militia loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aid. There, he trained Somali guerrillas using shoulder-borne rocket launchers against helicopters, training they used in Mogadishu's 1993 war to shoot down a pair of American helicopters in what is now known as the Black Hawk Down assault.

"When Al Qaeda started carrying out terrorist attacks in the late 1990s, al-Masri was one of Bin Laden's three closest allies, acting as director of the organization's operations department," said Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Tel Aviv Center for National Security Studies' Terrorism Programme. "He took know-how and commitment with him and has since been involved in a significant part of the organization's activities, with focus on Africa."

Shortly after the Mogadishu war, Bin Laden put Mr. al-Masri in charge of preparing operations against African objectives. Plotting a spectacular, ambitious plan that like the 9/11 attacks, dominated world interest, they planned to jointly strike two comparatively well-defended sites in different countries.

Shortly after 10:30 On 7 August 1998, two explosive trucks pulled in front of US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Nearby explosions incinerated civilians, blasted walls off homes, and smashed blocks of glass.

In 2000, Mr. al-Masri became one of nine members of Al Qaeda's governing council, heading the military preparation of the group.

He also continued to direct African activities, according to a former Israeli intelligence official, and ordered the 2002 attack in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 Kenyans and three Israeli visitors.

By 2003, Mr. al-Masri fled to Iran among many Qaeda leaders who while hostile to the group, appeared out of American reach.

"They thought the U.S. would find it very difficult to move against them," said Mr. Schweitzer. "And because they assumed that the Iranian regime's prospects of trading with the Americans that would require their heads were very slim."

Mr. al-Masri was one of the few high-ranking members to survive the American hunt for 9/11 suspects and other threats. As he and other leaders fled to Iran, they were briefly kept under house arrest.

In 2015, Iran announced a deal with Al Qaeda freeing five leaders of the group, including Mr. al-Masri, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen.

Mr. Abdullah's footsteps faded, but he managed to remain in Tehran under the protection of the Revolutionary Guards and later the Ministry of Intelligence and Defense, according to one of the intelligence officers. He was permitted to fly abroad, often to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.

Some American observers said the death of Mr. al-Masri would break ties between one of the last original Qaeda founders and the new generation of Islamist fighters, who grew up after Bin Laden's 2011 death.

"If real, this further cuts ties between old-school Al Qaeda and new jihad," said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, former National Counter-Terrorism Center chief. "This adds to the Al Qaeda movement's fracturing and decentralization."