Al Qaeda mastermind believed dead

Abu Obaidah al-Masri, a secretive figure behind foiled terrorist plots in Europe, died a year ago, US intelligence officials say.

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Abu Obaidah al-Masri, a senior militant planner for Al Qaeda and the alleged mastermind behind the 2005 London transportation bombings, has reportedly died last year in Afghanistan. Although Mr. Masri has been noted as a key Al Qaeda figure, security analysts say that his position will likely be swiftly filled as the network appears to be regrouping in the remote Afghan-Pakistani border region.

While there have been several prior attempts on his life, Reuters quotes a US intelligence figure as being confident that Masri recently died of natural causes:

"There is compelling reason to believe that Abu Obaidah is dead," a U.S. counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity.
McClatchy newspapers reported that Masri died of hepatitis in Pakistan.

Still, questions persist about the secretive operative, reported the Los Angeles Times last week.

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Recent intelligence suggests that Masri died too, officials say. But they say they have no confirmation, no Internet eulogies of the kind that celebrated [Libyan chief Abu Laith al] Libi.
Cultivating the art of survival through anonymity, Masri may have beaten the odds once again. Or it may be that, for strategic reasons, both sides want to keep his fate ambiguous as a successor emerges.

Mr. Libi, who was linked to an assassination attempt on Vice President Dick Cheney last year in Afghanistan, was killed in a US airstrike in January.

According to the Counterterrorism Blog, responding to an earlier – and apparently false – report of his death, Masri was a major player in Osama bin Laden's organization:

If reports of his death are accurate, Al-Qaida has no doubt suffered a significant blow to its top leadership and has lost the resources of a truly innovative and highly skilled terror mastermind.

The New York Times reports that Masri had significant and valuable experience in planning attacks and that in addition to the 2005 London bombing, he was also involved in a failed plot to blow up commercial planes flying over the Atlantic Ocean in 2006:

Mr. Masri, a veteran of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, was responsible for planning attacks against the West and recruiting operatives to carry them out, the official said.

American officials say that having Masri out of the picture diminishes Mr. bin Laden's ability to strike western targets, reports The Washington Post:

"Basically, he was the one heading up al-Qaeda's efforts to launch attacks against the West," said the U.S. counterterrorism official. Masri had many contacts in Europe and is believed to have traveled widely there in the 1990s before returning to Afghanistan about 2000, the official said.
The official said Masri's death would mean "a serious blow to al-Qaeda in terms of his key role and participation and plotting attacks against the West. It will disrupt those efforts at the very least."

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Masri's death could be even more important than bin Laden's capture:

Anti-terrorism officials consider operations chiefs more urgent prey than even Osama bin Laden because they are front-line figures in attacks on the West.

In recent years, Masri is said to have concentrated on the domestic fight in Afghanistan says The Washington Times:

Obeida al Masri, operating out of the mountainous Afghan province of Kunar, is thought to have been in charge of planning attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces. Violence in southern and eastern Afghanistan spiked last year, leaving about 1,600 people dead, including a surge in suicide attacks — a change of tactics by the militants.

Over the years, Masri faced several attempts on his life reports the Independent of England:

The Egyptian has twice before been declared to be dead after attempts to kill him. His first escape came after a US missile was fired at the village of Damadola in January 2006. It killed 18 people, including four alleged al-Qa'ida operatives, along with women and children. In the second, Pakistani helicopters attacked a religious school in the same area in October that year, killing a further 80 people.

But the BBC says he was an elusive figure and very hard to track down:

He was such a mysterious figure that even his real name was a carefully veiled secret – Abu Obaidah al-Masri is an Arabic nom de guerre meaning "Father of Obaidah the Egyptian."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Al Qaeda's senior leadership is likely to have quickly replaced al-Masri with a new operational head:

It is likely that Masri has already been replaced, experts say. Potential successors include Khalid Habib, an Egyptian who, according to expert Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda," has overseen Al Qaeda "internal" operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Others who worked with Masri and may have replaced him include Hamza al Jawfi, a Gulf Arab, and Midhat Mursi, an Egyptian chemist who has allegedly overseen Al Qaeda's efforts to develop unconventional weapons. Mursi was present while recruits from Northern Europe were trained in Pakistan last spring, according to investigators.

And even as Masri's death is being publicized, senior terrorist experts warned in congressional hearings Wednesday that the fight against Al Qaeda is continuing to fare badly and that the group is growing in strength, reports Voice of America:

Author and journalist Peter Bergen says more than six years after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is going poorly, and his terrorist organization is showing signs of resurgence...
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