Al Qaeda’s second-in-command was shot dead by assassins from an elite Israeli Mossad unit after they were tipped off to his whereabouts by US intelligence, it has been claimed.
Abu Mohammed al-Masri, one of the founding members of the terror group, was killed by five bullets shot from a silenced pistol as he sat in his car in the Iranian capital of Tehran in August.
He was killed alongside his 27-year-old daughter Maryam, a senior figure in al Qaeda who was married to Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza. Intelligence had suggested she was being groomed for a leadership role in the organisation and was involved in planning attacks.
Intelligence sources said the US provided Israel with al-Masri’s location – the upmarket Pasdaran district of Tehran, where he had been living since at least 2015.
They also provided Israel with al-Masri’s cover identity: Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor and member of Hezbollah, the sources said.
Israeli assassins from a Mossad unit known as Kidon – which means ‘tip of the spear in Hebrew – were then dispatched to kill him.
The killing itself happened on August 7, the anniversary of the 1998 bombings on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224, including 12 American citizens.
Al-Masri was believed to have helped plan that attack.
The terror commander was sitting inside his white Renault L90 sedan when two gunmen on a motorbike pulled up next to him and fired five shots.
Four bullets passed through his car, killing him and his daughter, and a fifth struck a nearby vehicle before the motorbike sped away.
Neither the US, Israel nor Al Qaeda has officially confirmed al-Masri’s death. It is not clear exactly why.
Iran has also refused to confirm the death, denying any presence of al-Qaeda in the country and that al-Masri had ever been in Tehran.
A spokesman described the story as a ‘Hollywood’ film plot cooked up by ‘American and Zionist officials’.
Iran – a Shia-majority country which has fought against Sunni al-Qaeda – has repeatedly denied housing top-ranking officials within its borders.
However, US intelligence officials believe several terror group leaders have been kept in Iran since at least 2003 when they were under house arrest.
Two deals with al-Qaeda in 2011 and 2015 then allowed some of those leaders to live as free men within the country, the New York Times reported.
Al-Masri’s daughter was the widow of Hamza bin Laden, the son of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
He was killed last year in a US counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Both the CIA and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which oversees the Mossad intelligence agency, declined to comment.
Israel and Iran are bitter enemies, with the Iranian nuclear program Israel’s top security concern. Israel has welcomed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord and the US pressure campaign on Tehran.
At the time of the killings, the Trump administration was in the advanced stages of trying to push through the UN Security Council the reinstatement of all international sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the nuclear agreement.
None of the other Security Council members went along with the US, which has vowed to punish countries that do not enforce the sanctions as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran.
Israeli officials are concerned the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden could return to the nuclear accord.
It is likely that if Biden does engage with the Iranians, Israel will press for the accord to be modified to address Iran’s long-range missile program and its military activity across the region, specifically in Syria and its support for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
The revelations that Iran was harbouring an al Qaeda leader could help Israel bolster its case with the new US administration.
Al-Masri had been on a kill or capture list for years, but his presence in Iran, which has a long history of hostility toward al Qaeda, presented significant obstacles to either apprehending or killing him.
Iran denied the reports, saying the government is not harbouring any al Qaeda leaders and blaming the US and Israel for trying to foment anti-Iranian sentiment.
US officials have long believed a number of al Qaeda leaders have been living quietly in Iran for years and publicly released intelligence assessments have made that case.
Al-Masri’s death, albeit under an assumed name, was reported in Iranian media on August 8.
Reports identified him as a Lebanese history professor potentially affiliated with Lebanon’s Iranian-linked Hezbollah movement and said he had been killed by motorcycle gunmen along with his daughter.
Lebanese media, citing Iranian reports, said that those killed were Lebanese citizen Habib Daoud and his daughter Maraym.
The deaths of al-Masri and his daughter occurred three days after the catastrophic August 4 explosion at the port of Beirut and did not get much attention.
Hezbollah never commented on reports and Lebanese security officials did not report that any citizens were killed in Tehran.
A Hezbollah official on Saturday would not comment on al-Masri’s death, saying Iran’s foreign ministry had already denied it.
The alleged killings seem to fit a pattern of behaviour attributed to Israel in the past.
In 1995, the founder of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad was killed by a gunman on a motorcycle in Malta, in an assassination widely attributed to the Mossad.
The Mossad also reportedly carried out a string of similar killings of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran early last decade. Iran has accused Israel of being behind those killings.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former analyst on Iranian affairs in the prime minister’s office, said it has been known for some time that Iran is hiding top al Qaeda figures.
While he had no direct knowledge of al-Masri’s death, he said a joint operation between the US and Israel would reflect the two nations’ close intelligence cooperation, with the US typically stronger in the technical aspects of intelligence gathering and Israel adept at operating agents behind enemy lines.