Al-Qaeda's No. 2, accused in US embassy attacks, is secretly killed in Iran

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah was gunned down on the streets of Teheran by two assassins on a motorcycle on Aug 7. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Al-Qaeda's second-highest leader, accused of being one of the masterminds of the deadly 1998 attacks on US embassies in Africa, was killed in Iran three months ago, intelligence officials have confirmed.

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down on the streets of Teheran by two assassins on a motorcycle on Aug 7, the anniversary of the embassy attacks. He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden's son Hamza bin Laden.

The attack was carried out by Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States, according to four of the officials. It is unclear what role if any was played by the United States, which had been tracking the movements of al-Masri and other Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran for years.

The killing occurred in such a netherworld of geopolitical intrigue and counterterrorism spycraft that al-Masri's death had been rumoured but never confirmed until now. For reasons that are still obscure, Al-Qaeda has not announced the death of one of its top leaders, Iranian officials covered it up, and no country has publicly claimed responsibility for it.

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".

Al-Masri, who was about 58, was one of Al-Qaeda's founding leaders and was thought to be first in line to lead the organisation after its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Long featured on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist list, he had been indicted in the United States for crimes related to the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded hundreds.

The FBI offered a US$10 million (S$13.48 million) reward for information leading to his capture, and as of Friday (Nov 13), his picture was still on the Most Wanted list.

That he had been living in Iran was surprising, given that Iran and Al-Qaeda are bitter enemies. Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and Al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadi group, have fought each other on the battlefields of Iraq and other places.

American intelligence officials say that al-Masri had been in Iran's "custody" since 2003, but that he had been living freely in the Pasdaran district of Teheran, an upscale suburb, since at least 2015.

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Around 9 on a warm summer night, he was driving his white Renault L90 sedan with his daughter near his home when two gunmen on a motorcycle drew up beside him. Five shots were fired from a pistol fitted with a silencer. Four bullets entered the car through the driver's side and a fifth hit a nearby car.

As news of the shooting broke, Iran's official news media identified the victims as Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor, and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam. The Lebanese news channel MTV and social media accounts affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard reported that Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon.

It seemed plausible.

The killing came amid a summer of frequent explosions in Iran, mounting tensions with the United States, days after an enormous explosion in the port of Beirut and a week before the UN Security Council was to consider extending an arms embargo against Iran. There was speculation that the killing may have been a Western provocation intended to elicit a violent Iranian reaction in advance of the Security Council vote.

And the targeted killing by two gunmen on a motorcycle fit the modus operandi of previous Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. That Israel would kill an official of Hezbollah, which is committed to fighting Israel, also seemed to make sense, except for the fact that Israel had been consciously avoiding killing Hezbollah operatives so as not to provoke a war.

In fact, there was no Habib Daoud.

Several Lebanese with close ties to Iran said they had not heard of him or his killing. A search of Lebanese news media found no reports of a Lebanese history professor killed in Iran last summer. And an education researcher with access to lists of all history professors in the country said there was no record of a Habib Daoud.

One of the intelligence officials said that Habib Daoud was an alias Iranian officials gave al-Masri and the history teaching job was a cover story. In October, the former leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, Nabil Naeem, who called al-Masri a longtime friend, told the Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya the same thing.

Iran may have had good reason for wanting to hide the fact that it was harbouring an avowed enemy, but it was less clear why Iranian officials would have taken in the Al-Qaeda leader to begin with.

Iran has consistently denied housing the Al-Qaeda officials. In 2018, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that because of Iran's long, porous border with Afghanistan, some Al-Qaeda members had entered Iran, but they had been detained and returned to their home countries.

However, Western intelligence officials said the Al-Qaeda leaders had been kept under house arrest by the Iranian government, which then made at least two deals with Al-Qaeda to free some of them in 2011 and 2015.

Although Al-Qaeda has been overshadowed in recent years by the rise of the Islamic State, it remains resilient and has active affiliates around the globe, a UN counterterrorism report issued in July concluded.

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

Al-Masri was a longtime member of Al-Qaeda's highly secretive management council, along with Saif al-Adl, who was also held in Iran at one point. The pair, along with Hamza bin Laden, who was being groomed to take over the organisation, were part of a group of senior Qaeda leaders who sought refuge in Iran after the 9/11 attacks on the United States forced them to flee Afghanistan.

According to a highly classified document produced by the US National Counterterrorism Centre in 2008, al-Masri was the "most experienced and capable operational planner not in US or allied custody." The document described him as the "former chief of training" who "worked closely" with al-Adl.

In Iran, al-Masri mentored Hamza bin Laden, according to terrorism experts. Hamza bin Laden later married al-Masri's daughter, Miriam.

In 2015, Iran announced a deal with Al-Qaeda in which it released five of the organisation's leaders, including al-Masri, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who had been abducted in Yemen.

Abdullah's footprints faded away, but according to one of the intelligence officials, he continued to live in Teheran, under the protection of the Revolutionary Guards and later the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He was allowed to travel abroad and did, mainly to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.

Some American analysts said al-Masri's death would sever connections between one of the last original Al-Qaeda leaders and the current generation of Islamist militants, who have grown up after bin Laden's 2011 death.

"If true, this further cuts links between old-school Al-Qaeda and the modern jihad," said Mr Nicholas Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Centre. "It just further contributes to the fragmentation and decentralisation of the Al-Qaeda movement."

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