Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was confirmed to have been shot and killed in Tehran, Iran, on August 7, reports The New York Times, citing U.S. intelligence officials. Four of these officials also confirmed that the attack was executed by Israeli operatives on behalf of the United States. Al-Masri’s death comes on the anniversary of the deadly 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, which al-Masri reportedly helped mastermind. The New York Times report states that al-Masri was killed along with his daughter Miriam, who was the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden.
The U.S. is known to have been tracking the movements of al-Masri and other al-Qaeda operatives in Iran for years, however, it remains unclear how large a role the U.S. played in the operation, reports The New York Times. The killing of al-Masri’s was rumored, but not confirmed until now, three months later. Despite the recent reports, al-Qaeda has not confirmed the death of one of its top leaders. Both Israel and the U.S. have avoided publicly claiming responsibility for the attack, The New York Times furthers.
Iran has denied reports that al-Masri was killed in Tehran. Iran’s foreign ministry has claimed that the report was false, stating, “From time to time, Washington and Tel Aviv 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,” reports BBC News. This was furthered by one of Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, who denied “any presence of al-Qaeda” members in Iran, reports The New York Times
After the story of the shooting of al-Masri broke, state media in Iran identified the victims of the shooting as Lebanese history professor Habib Daoud and his daughter Maryam, according to Al Jazeera. It is believed that Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Iranian backed armed political group in Lebanon that is in constant conflict with Israel, explains Al Jazeera. However, The New York Times reports that Daoud was an alias that Iranian officials gave to al-Masri and that his teaching job was a cover to prevent suspicion.
The initial report from The New York Times said that Iran’s motive for keeping al-Qaeda seniors members as hostages, despite being bitter enemies, might have been to ensure that the group would not conduct operations against the Iranian government or on its home soil. Another reason may have been to prevent al-Qaeda running operations against the United States.
Many analysts, including Ali Soufan at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, saw al-Masri as the potential successor to al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is in poor health, according to CNN. Ali Soufan, a former FBI investigator and an expert on al-Qaeda, sees this as a clear loss for the terrorist group. Soufan states that, “Throughout its existence, whenever al-Qaeda has evolved, Abu Muhammad al-Masri has been at the forefront of the change… al-Qaeda have lost one of their founding fathers and their most experienced and capable operational planner,” according to CNN.
A new era may be dawning, according to some American analysts, who speculate that al-Masri’s death could sever the remaining threads between the few remaining original leaders of al-Qaeda and the new generation of Islamist militants, who have grown up after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, according to The New York Times. The death of al-Masri could contribute to the further decentralization of the organization. It could also change al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran, who continues to hold other leaders of the organization hostage in Tehran. The full effects of this incident will have important implications for both the survival of al-Qaeda and its future operations.