The F.B.I. wanted poster for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri. (FBI)

By Track Persia

November 25, 2020

Two Israeli operatives killed Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior Al Qaeda leader in the line of succession in Tehran last August at the behest of the United States. The killing of al-Masri followed the decades-old pattern of targeted killings by Israel’s Mossad.

Israel’s News Channel 12 reported on the killing of al-Masri and why Israel became involved in his killing, revealing that al-Masri had planned to attack Israeli and Jewish targets. The report stated that the killing of al-Masri was a “clean operation that was carried out without incident.”

Al-Masri who was also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdulla had been wanted by the U.S. government for more than two decades and was accused of being one of the masterminds of the deadly 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The twin attacks left 224 people dead and the F.B.I. offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture, and as of Friday, his picture was still on the Most Wanted list. According to a highly classified document produced by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center in 2008, al-Masri was the most experienced and capable operational planner, describing him as the “former chief of training.”

Iran reportedly did place senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Muhammad al-Masri in a form of detention at some point. In 2015, the Iranians freed al-Masri and four others in exchange for an Iranian diplomat. Al-Qaeda had kidnapped Tehran’s representative in order to free al-Masri and the others.

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 Tehran, an upscale suburb, since at least 2015.

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. One of the intelligence officials said that Habib Daoud was an alias Iranian officials gave to al-Masri and the history teaching job was a cover story.

In the meantime, the Lebanese news channel MTV and social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported that Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon. 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.

Iran reportedly did place senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Muhammad al-Masri in a form of detention at some point. In 2015, the Iranians freed Masri and four others in exchange for an Iranian diplomat. Al-Qaeda had kidnapped Tehran’s representative in order to free Masri and the others.

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 Tehran, an upscale suburb, since at least 2015.

Al-Qaeda has not announced the death of one of its top leaders, while the Iranian officials covered it up, and no country has publicly claimed responsibility for it. Iran’s official news media identified the victims as Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor, and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam. One of the intelligence officials said that Habib Daoud was an alias Iranian officials gave Mr. al-Masri and the history teaching job was a cover story.

The Lebanese news channel MTV and social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported that  Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon. 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.

The killings mentioned above share similar characteristics. All involved assassins on motorcycles, the operations were conducted in countries considered hostile to Israel and those killed posed a threat to the country’s security.

Who is al-Masri

Al-Masri was born in Al-Gharbiya district of northern Egypt in 1963. In his youth, he was a professional soccer player in Egypt’s top league. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, al-Masri joined the jihadist movement that was coalescing to assist the Afghan forces. Egypt refused to allow al-Masri to return after the Soviets withdrew 10 years later, therefore he remained in Afghanistan where he eventually joined Bin Laden in the group that was later to become the founding nucleus of Al Qaeda. He was listed by the group as the seventh of its 170 founders.

In the early 1990s, al-Masri travelled with Bin Laden to Khartoum, Sudan, where he began forming military cells. He also went to Somalia to help the militia loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid to train Somali guerrillas in the use of shoulder-borne rocket launchers against helicopters, training they used in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu to shoot down a pair of American helicopters in what is now known as the Black Hawk Down attack.

Why Iran is in bed with al-Qaeda   

Some might be surprised to see that Tehran is harbouring the most notorious al-Qaeda high ranking members and taking in the Qaeda leader, given that Iran and Al Qaeda are bitter enemies and they have been at odds in various ways. They are on opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, have fought each other on the battlefields of Iraq and other places. Therefore it is understandable why Tehran is hiding the fact that it is harbouring its enemy such one of al-Qaeda notorious leaders al-Masri.

Furthermore, the Iranian regime might have found that harbouring Qaeda high-ranking officials in Iran would provide some insurance that the terrorist group would not carry out operations inside Iran and they could also use them to attack interests of the United States and its allies. Iran has not been the first time joining forces with extremist Sunni groups as it has supported Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Taliban. It seems that the Iranian regime overlooks ideological and sectarian divides when it suits its interests.

Al-Qaeda’s repeated cooperation with Iran

Despite being at odds in various ways, since the 1990s the two have repeatedly cooperated. Good examples are the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings and when the 9/11 bombings. The 9/11 Commission found Iran and its chief Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, gave al-Qaeda the “tactical expertise” necessary for those near-simultaneous attacks. The report states that Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were impressed with how Iranian-backed terrorists forced America’s retreat from Lebanon in the 1980s. As consequence, al-Qaeda wanted to replicate that success. Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden reached out to Iran’s master terrorist and Hezbollah’s chieftain, Imad Mughniyah while living in Sudan in the early 1990s.  As a result of their encounter, as well as other meetings, al-Qaeda sent personnel to Iran and Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon when al-Qaeda’s men were shown how to build the bombs necessary to conduct an operation such as Hezbollah’s 1983 bombings on the American and French military barracks in Lebanon. Thus, Iran’s 1983 barracks bombings served as a template for al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings.

The details of a formerly “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda have repeatedly exposed by the Treasury and State Departments which revealed that under this agreement the Iranians allow al-Qaeda to maintain its “core facilitation pipeline” on their soil. Osama bin Laden himself referred to this Iranian hub as the “main artery” for his global network.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.