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Explained: Who was Muhammad al-Masri, what was his role in al-Qaeda, and who is next in line now?

The New York Times said Abu Muhammad al-Masri was living in Tehran in the "protective custody" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite unit of the Iranian Army, and later of the Iranian intelligence service.

By: Express News Service | Mumbai |
Updated: November 17, 2020 10:44:26 am
Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who also went by the name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was an Egyptian founding member of al-Qaeda. (FBI via The New York Times)

On Saturday, The New York Times reported that al-Qaeda’s number 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, had been killed by Israeli operatives in Tehran. Iran has, however, denied this.

Who was Abu Muhammad al-Masri?

Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who also went by the name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was an Egyptian founding member of al-Qaeda, regarded by counter-terrorism experts as the next in line to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the Islamist terror group. The New York Times reported that he was killed in Tehran by Israeli operatives at the behest of the US in August this year.

Iran has denied that any member of al-Qaeda was killed in Tehran, and dismissed the the report as “Hollywood-style scenario making” by US and Israeli officials.

The New York Times, quoting anonymous intelligence officials, said he was living in Tehran in the “protective custody” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite unit of the Iranian Army, and later of the Iranian intelligence service, although he had been shown as one of the five al-Qaeda operatives released by Iran in 2015, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Yemen. Even while being a captive of the Iranians, he was apparently allowed to travel to Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan.

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An authoritative profile by Abu Soufan, a fomer FBI agent, in the November 2019 issue of CTCSentinel, a journal published by the Combating Terror Centre at West Point, the US military academy, traces Abu Muhammad’s jihadist journey from the time he travelled to Afghanistan as one of Osama bin Laden’s “Arab Afghans” against the Soviets, in his late teens or early 20s. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89, Egypt blocked the return of its nationals who had fought in that “jihad”. Abu Muhammad stayed on in Afghanistan with many others like him. He was among a list of 170 “charter members” of al-Qaeda and was listed seventh, in a list found in the remains of an al-Qaeda facility in Afghanistan. He moved with bin Laden to Sudan in the 1990s, and took part in the Somalian civil war.

He remained in bin Laden’s inner circle, and proved his loyalty to him as the mastermind of the first big al-Qaeda attacks against the US, the 1998 bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The near simultaneous attacks killed 213 people in Nairobi and 11 in Dar es Salaam.

This Aug. 8, 1998, file photo shows the United States Embassy, left, and other damaged buildings in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, the day after terrorist bombs in Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin, File)

Abu Muhammad is said to have been killed on August 7 this year, the 22nd anniversary of the bombings.

“By the end of 2000, he had been appointed as one of the nine members of al-Qaida’s shura council, the organization’s governing body (the 10th member being bin Ladin himself). He was prominent on the council’s military committee, meaning he was consulted on all planned attacks, including the deadly bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000 and the ‘planes operation’ itself. He commanded all al-Qaida forces in Kabul, the Afghan capital. And he was placed in charge of the organization’s vital network of training camps, replacing a Tunisian, Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi, killed in a battle against the Northern Alliance. Salim Hamdan, bin Ladin’s one-time driver, told this author during an interrogation that as head of the camps, Abu Muhammad proved particularly adept at identifying would-be operatives and recommending them for specialized training in techniques like explosives and urban warfare,” Abu Soufan wrote, also noting that Abu Muhammad had counselled against the ”planes operation”, or the 9/11 attacks in the US. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram


What was he doing in Iran?

Shia Iran is an unlikely safe haven for Sunni extremist/terror groups, but according to al-Qaeda watchers, the group had a complicated relationship with Iran, one that was not completely driven by sectarian Sunni Wahabist ideologial hatred or contempt for Shia.

According to Abu Soufan, Iran had established contact with bin Laden as early as in the 1990s, to make common cause against the US.

After 9/11, as the US military bombarded Afghanistan, many al-Qaeda fighters from bin Laden’s family fled to Pakistan or over the Zahedan border to Iran. Abu Muhammad was one of those who chose the latter country. Iran arrested some of these fighters at the time, and is even thought to have handed over some of them to the US in a rare instance of cooperation, but kept a handful in its custody. Bin Laden’s sons Hamza and Saad were among this lot who remained in Iran but were eventually released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat taken hostage in Pakistan. Saad was killed in 2009 in a drone attack in Pakistan. US President Donald Trump announced on September 19, 2019 that Hamza had been killed but no other details of his death have emerged. Abu Muhammad’s daughter was married to Hamza.


In 2015, Abu Muhammad and Saif al Adl, the other contender for the top leadership of al-Qaeda, were named in a list of five members of the group released by Iran in exchange for another Iranian diplomat who had been abducted in Yemen in 2013. But the US believed that the two men remained in Iranian custody as insurance for another day.

On August 8, 2018, on the 20th anniversary of the Embassy bombings, the US State Department increased its reward for information concerning the whereabouts of both from $5 million to $10 million. Both were indicted for the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

In a report to the Security Council by the UN al-Qaeda monitoring committee, both Abu Muhammad and Saif al Adl were named as Zawahiri’s “lieutenants based in Iran”, and said to be playing a role in resolving disputes among al-Qaeda fighters in Syria from inside Iran.

Who is next in line?

If it is true that Abu Muhammad is no longer alive, Said al Adl, who started out as a colonel in the Egyptian Army, but was jailed in 1987 for a conspiracy case against the Egypitan government, may position himself for the leadership of al-Qaeda after al-Zawahiri, who is 68 years old and ailing. Saif al Adl is seen as equal in rank to Abu Muhammad, but how influential he remains is in question.


Al-Qaeda has also had trouble with its offshoots such as Nusra Front in Syria, an indication that the central leadership of the group is no longer as influential with the new generation of Islamist fighters who claim affiliation to al-Qaeda but appear to act by themselves as decentralised groups.

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First published on: 16-11-2020 at 03:30:33 am
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