Israeli agents killed al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Iran in August - NYT

Report reveals US-Israel cooperation against Tehran, terrorist group

Shi'ite Houthi rebels, Ansar al-Sharia flag in Almnash, stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, local wing of Al Qaeda (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI)
Shi'ite Houthi rebels, Ansar al-Sharia flag in Almnash, stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, local wing of Al Qaeda
Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, accused of helping to mastermind the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, was killed in Iran in August by Israeli operatives acting at the behest of the US, the New York Times reported, citing intelligence officials.
Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle in the streets of Tehran on August 7, the Times reported on Friday.
The killing of Masri, who was seen as a likely successor to al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was kept secret until now, the newspaper said.
A senior Afghan security source told Reuters in October that Masri, who has long been on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, had been killed in the Pasdaran area of Tehran. Reuters had been unable to corroborate that information.
It was unclear what, if any, role the United States had in the killing of the Egyptian-born terrorist, the Times said. US authorities had been tracking Masri and other al-Qaeda operatives in Iran for years, it said.
Al-Qaeda has not announced his death, Iranian officials have covered it up and no government has publicly claimed responsibility, the Times said.
Iran on Saturday denied the report, saying there were no al-Qaeda “terrorists” on its soil.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement that the United States and Israel sometimes “try to tie Iran to such groups by lying and leaking false information to the media in order to avoid responsibility for the criminal activities of this group and other terrorist groups in the region.”
The administration of President Donald Trump’s “scare-mongering tactic against Iran has become routine,” Khatibzadeh said.
A US official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm any details of the Times story or say whether there was any US involvement. The White House National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem said it was not commenting on the report.
THE REPORT has important ramifications, not only for the dismantling of al-Qaeda and its senior leadership, but also for the region and US-Israeli cooperation.
This isn’t the first time Israel and the US have been said to coordinate closely in efforts inside Iran. In 2012, The Washington Post reported that the Stuxnet virus, designed to set back Iran’s nuclear program, was the “work of US and Israeli experts.”
This is important because it comes after tensions inside Iran in the summer. In June and July there were explosions at key infrastructure facilities. On July 2 an explosion damaged a key centrifuge facility at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Another explosion damaged a site linked to Iran’s rocket program. Iran has said the Natanz attack was a work of sabotage. Iran has been careful not to blame Israel. Iran recently was said to be exceeding a nuclear enrichment limit, which was said in September to be 10 times the limit Iran was supposed to have. Now it is 12 times the amount, according to a November 2 report.
The overall context of this is that there are tensions not only between Iran, its allies, like Hezbollah, and Israel, but also between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Houthi rebels in Yemen, backed by Tehran, flying drones against Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the Trump administration has just shook up the Department of Defense and there are concerns from Western media outlets about possible operations by the US against Iran. In addition social media accounts speculated last week about a potential Israeli strike on Iran. There is no evidence of either.
The focus on al-Qaeda is a shift from the nuclear tensions. It is also a shift from Iran’s threats against the US in Iraq. It is also a shift from the focus in some outlets about the US trying to broker details about the fate of Austin Tice, an American rumored to be held by the Syrian regime.
Kash Patel, who was said to be involved in these discussions, has been elevated in his position at the Department of Defense. A mysterious US flight to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon last week led to more rumors. Lebanese intel head Abbas Ibrahim was rumored to have visited Syria regarding the Tice file.
The Times report illustrates that Iran was a safe haven for al-Qaeda members, a reversal from 20 years ago when it was closely linked to sectarian anti-Shi’ite violence in Afghanistan, operations that Iran opposed.
Details of the killing date back to mid-October when a Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) report noted that “high-ranking al-Qaeda commander Abu Muhammad al-Masri,” who was known as Habib Dawoodi, was killed in Tehran. The circumstances were “mysterious” and his daughter Miriam, who was the widow of Hamzah Bin Laden, was also reportedly killed.
Al-Qaeda had moved to cover up the killing. It wanted to “prevent further divisions within the group and to spare Iranian authorities, who are currently hosting some high-ranking members of the group, any embarrassment.” Indeed, Iran appeared embarrassed on November 14 after the New York Times report, asserting it was not accurate.
THE AL-QAEDA leader was killed by gunmen on a motorcycle. At the time the report in Iran had said he was a “Lebanese father and daughter” and that he was gunned down in the evening in Tehran’s al-Bustan neighborhood. It is unusual for people to be gunned down by motorcyclists in Iran. In the past, this style of assassination has been blamed on Israel. For instance the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, such as Darioush Rezaeinejad, was shot five times from a motorcycle as he was going home with his wife. A bomber on a motorcycle killed a scientist named Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan in January 2012, according to the Times.
At the time Radio Free Europe reported that Western, Arab and other intelligence services, including “of course the Israeli intelligence service, has a network of agents inside the Iranian nuclear program.” Israel and the US were reportedly blamed by Iran in the 2012 assassinations. Al Jazeera said the method resembled earlier killing.
The report in the US said Masri was accused in two US embassy attacks in Africa in the 1990s, one of the early heinous al-Qaeda attacks on the US that signaled the group declaring war on America.
Jason Brodsky, an expert on Iran, pointed out on Saturday that the story of the death was wilder considering media reports in August that suggested Habib Dawoodi “was killed outside the home of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Tehran.” Muhandis was a pro-Iranian Iraq leader of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq. He had been killed by the US in an airstrike in January alongside IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani.
Why would Masri have been killed near his house? Was this a neighborhood full of all the leading terrorists in the world being hosted by Iran. Muhandis was a wanted terrorist, known for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s.
Another rumor on Saturday included claims that al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri had died a month ago. Hassan Hassan, a leading journalist and editor of Newlines Magazine who covers the Middle East, tweeted about Zawahiri’s rumored death from natural causes. In Washington, Omri Ceren, another export on the region who is national security adviser for Sen. Ted Cruz, noted that the report of the killing of Masri was interesting. “Someone decided to leak that right now to the NYT, which is arguably even more interesting.”
This leads to many questions. Why al-Qaeda’s No. 2? Why now? Why the leak? A new US administration will take over in January. The Trump administration has been very close to Israel, and President-elect Joe Biden is also close to Israel but there are questions about whether those around him will want to be softer on Iran.
Meanwhile US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way to the region this week. That means the report comes at a key time for the region and for US-Israel relations.
It is not clear how important al-Qaeda is today. Its Syrian franchise and other affiliates are important but often less important these days than ISIS and other groups. Reports also indicated in July 2019 that the son of bin Laden, Hamzah bin Laden, was killed. This was confirmed by the US in September 2019.
That means most of the senior al-Qaeda leadership is now dead. Does this mean the extremism embodied by al-Qaeda is finally fading, or merely it has changed hands to a new generation. Men like Zawahiri were elderly and the group wasn’t attracting many followers. Its old-style cell structure and long-term plots were out of step with the modern jihadist extremist genocidal way of doing things that ISIS embodies.
The fact that its leaders ended up in Iran, their wings clipped, is also important. Like Saddam Hussein’s air force, they ended up there to flee US pressure.
That US or other agents, including Israel’s, who were said to be behind the attack, could operate together or so effectively in Iran is a message to Tehran. It also shows how Israeli and US cooperation is essential in the war on terror against all types of extremism in the region. This should illustrate how close and cemented US-Israel ties are. The countries have done three drills with F-35s recently ,and Israel’s new relations with the UAE, Bahrain and other states are part of the US pushing for more cooperation with Israel.
If Masri, said to be behind the embassy attacks in 1998, finally met his end, it was justice coming full circle. If he was hunted down by the US and key American allies, that shows the long arm of justice can reach into the heart of Tehran to bring down the world’s terrorists.