Al Qaeda Deputy Killed in Iran

The man behind the 1998 embassy attacks is dead.

New York Times (“Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Accused in U.S. Embassy Attacks, Was Killed in Iran“)

Al Qaeda’s second-highest leader, accused of being one of the masterminds of the deadly 1998 attacks on American 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 Tehran 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 Mr. al-Masri and other Qaeda operatives in Iran for years.

The killing occurred in such a netherworld of geopolitical intrigue and counterterrorism spycraft that Mr. al-Masri’s death had been rumored 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.

Mr. 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 organization after its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

It’s remarkable that the embassy attacks, which really put al Qaeda on the map well before the 9/11 attacks, happened so long ago. And that, after years obsessing over the organization, this news now seems like an afterthought. Indeed, one has to work hard to find this on the front page of the NYT website.

We’ve learned the hard way that killing off the bad guys doesn’t do much to diminish the threat. There was a period in the mid-2000s where our forces were killing “al Qaeda’s number 3” so often that it became a running joke. Still, it’s good to finally get this bastard.

Further, while decapitation strikes didn’t prove to be the answer, something seems to have worked. Al Qaeda doesn’t occupy us even to the extent it did in 1998, much less the years after 9/11. We have long since shifted the focus of our national security strategy away from terrorism to “Great Power Competition,” especially with China.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I know we went after the money. Maybe that was a big factor?

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  2. Slugger says:

    1. I will shed no tears for this guy.
    2. However, extrajudicial killings on the soil of another nation are very troubling. The 2005 movie Munich was a good presentation of the moral hazards of killing bad guys.
    3. Is it possible that our current focus on conflict with China rather than in the Middle East is based less on action by our opponents and more by internal US concerns? We have always been at war with EastAsia, right?

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    In so many ways, affair al-Masri has a plot like a Charles McCarry novel. Were the Iranians harboring him or was he a prisoner on a long leash? Did US intelligence agencies find him or was his presence revealed by a putative ally? Yes, Israeli intelligence has a long reach into Iran, but what did Israel receive in exchange for the risk in exposing its operatives? Why the ho-hum reaction of Iran and Al Qaeda?

    No one should shed a tear over his death.

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  4. ImProPer says:

    After reading this post I was curious. I’ m not an expert on middle eastern affairs, but under the impression that Al Quaeda, a radical Sunni organization, were basically enemies of Shiite Iran. I found the story in The Times of Israel and am sharing a couples quotes from it below.

    “It’s unclear why Iran would harbor al-Masri. Iran is a Shiite state, and has fought with al-Qaeda, a Sunni jihadist organization.

    Intelligence officials told the Times that al-Masri was in Iranian “custody” since 2003 and lived in Tehran since at least 2015. While in Tehran, he was protected by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps but allowed to move freely and travel abroad.

    Experts told the Times that Iran may hold al-Qaeda members to prevent attacks in Iran, or to allow them to conduct operations against the US.”

    It appears that a very bad man has been taken out, along with with his aforementioned daughter, a prominent figure in jihadist royalty.
    That this was done some months ago, and Trump hearing about it, and not taking absolute credit for it is unthinkable.
    He, and his minions at the State department, were definitely out of the loop. Hate to play the role of captain obvious, but the Middle East,
    Sure is a cluster f*&k, despite Trump’s triumphant ME policies (The subject of his Nobel Prize nomination). This is definitely a murky story, from a very murky place.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Slugger:

    extrajudicial killings on the soil of another nation are very troubling

    Yes. I’m not in favor of them when judicial proceedings are a reasonable alternative. That’s not the case here, though. There was no way to get him extradited and brought to trial.

    We have always been at war with EastAsia, right?

    Not that I’m aware of, no.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    Further, while decapitation strikes didn’t prove to be the answer, something seems to have worked. Al Qaeda doesn’t occupy us even to the extent it did in 1998, much less the years after 9/11.

    Al Qaeda gave way to ISIS, and was basically a minor has-been at that point. Then the Syrian refugee crisis was in the news, triggering a large number of disillusioned potential followers in the west, but that seems to have gone away (it was partly prompted by a crop failure, so… without checking, maybe the next year’s crops were better? Maybe we got bored of news footage?). ISIS got bombed a lot. And we’ve had Covid in the news since, and travel restrictions everywhere that make it hard to organize.

    Terrorism is at a lull.

    A few weeks ago some teacher was beheaded in France, and it was mostly just reported as a crime rather than the end of civilization is coming because of dirty foreigners. Two years ago, that would have been everywhere.

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  7. JohnMcC says:

    @ImProPer: I had the same question pop into the ruins of my mind — We had this guy killed after all these years and Mr Trump keeps it a secret? C’mon man!

    And FWIW, my Bing news feed tells me Iran denies the report.

    Now, if indeed it’s a false report, who gains?

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  8. dazedandconfused says:

    @ImProPer:

    That narrative fits Israel’s remarkable accomplishment of getting to him in Iran. There would certainly be a strong divergence of opinion within Iran about the harboring of an AQ boy. I can imagine some would like to have that dog on a chain rather than dead. They could force him to ‘sing for his dinner’ for intel and discourage AQ ops in Iran, and maybe even use AQ as a weapon against their enemies from time to time. To use enemies against each other fits well with the Iranian self-image as chess masters.

    On the other hand there are Iranians who can not tolerate a living breathing AQ guy on their streets. They would leap at a chance to have someone else take the blame for his demise.

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  9. JohnSF says:

    @Slugger:
    Better to do it by legal proceedings, or even formal war, when you can.
    But the world is not a perfect place.
    The Powers can operate outside the rules that bind citizens; and sometimes must do so.
    justia supra lex

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  10. JohnSF says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Lots of Powers wanted this person dead.
    His demise was overdetermined, as a Marxist might say.

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  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    The attacks in France are considered terrorism, but by an individual acting on his/her own. No evidence of an organized plan has been found.

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  12. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:
    @Sleeping Dog:
    Or at least, made public.
    It is often forgotten that the French military are currently fighting an extremely bloody “conflict” along a (discontinuous) front from the Atlantic to the Sudan against IS/AQ/BH etc.
    And are currently close to confrontation with Turkey re. Cypriot territorial waters.

    Whether this has any connection with the late unlamented in Tehran: ?
    But the French have a history of “reach out and touch someone”.

    Also @ImProPer: there have been rumours for a long time of possible dealings between AQ and some elements in the Iran power structure.
    The old M.E. proverb (adjusted by me):

    “My enemy’s enemy is my friend; but sometimes he’s my enemy. But, maybe my enemy is sometimes my friend against another enemy. And my enemy’s friends enemy is my enemy. Or my friend. Or is he…”

    Wilderness of f*@in mirrors.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog: But no one is freaking out about it. Because the rest of life has gotten so much worse?

    When things are going smoothly, a lone nut who watched some videos and then beheaded someone would be a major story, with sidebars about how we can stop this radicalization, and there’s about how our open society leads to these vulnerabilities. Now… barely noticed.

    If a tree falls in a forest, but there’s no one there to hear it, it still makes a sound. And thus, this is still terrorism. But it’s not effective. It’s just background noise. It allows people to suddenly look back and say “yeah, we seem to have done something that worked”.

    Between travel restrictions due to Covid making it harder to organize, government supports for people affected by Covid (the US is pretty uniquely stingy in this regard) reducing some of the economic desperation, and it just being harder to kill large numbers when there aren’t big crowds… I’m not surprised there is a decrease in effective terrorism. It doesn’t mean we have done something right.

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  14. Raoul says:

    Any speculation as to al-Zawahri? I figured that by now someone would have cashed the 25 million dollar reward.

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  15. ImProPer says:

    @JohnMcC:

    “Now, if indeed it’s a false report, who gains?”

    Hate to wish the death of anyone, but if true, who doesn’t gain, would be a much shorter list. Isreal, would gain either way for the US to see a link between Iran and AQ.
    @dazedandconfused:

    Good points. The Isrealies, don’t play around, and I’m inclined to think this story legit. Which begs the question JohnMcC asked above.

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  16. dazedandconfused says:

    @ImProPer:

    I don’t understand his question. The reports say the Israelis did it, not that the US and the Israelis did it.

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  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    Only in the US is this not news, as we are preoccupied. This is a major news in France and Marcon’s government is taking a hard line and blurring the distinction between Islam and Islamist. For the French, this is the equivalent of the mass shootings that occur in the US. While US mass killings have varied between a crazy guy, an Islamist, a white supremacist or a neo-nazi, France’s have been perpetrated by Islamist and the French are looking specifically at someone to blame.

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  18. ImProPer says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    In the times story above it said that “The attack was carried out by Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States, according to four of the officials.” I expressed doubt of Trump knowing about it, because he would of had to take brag and take personal credit for the hit. JohnMcC, seemed skeptical as well and wondered if story was false, who gains.

    @JohnSF:

    “Wilderness of f*@in mirrors”

    Yes indeed.

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