An official in the intelligence community told the Associated Press, in a report published Sunday, that the daughter of a senior al-Qaeda leader killed in Iran earlier this year was also a deliberate target of the operation.
The United States believed Miriam al-Masri was being groomed for a leadership role in al-Qaeda and intelligence suggested she was involved in operational planning, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The US and Israel worked together to track and kill senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Mohammed al-Masri in Tehran in a bold intelligence operation.
Four current and former US officials confirmed to the Associated Press a Saturday New York Times report that Abu Mohammed al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s No. 2, and his daughter were killed by gunmen in the Iranian capital in August.
According to two of those officials, the US provided intelligence to the Israelis on where they could find Abu Mohammed al-Masri and the alias he was using at the time, while Israeli agents carried out the killing. The two other officials confirmed al-Masri’s killing but could not provide specific details.
Al-Masri was gunned down in a Tehran alley on August 7, the anniversary of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Al-Masri was widely believed to have participated in the planning of those attacks and was wanted on terrorism charges by the FBI. Israel alleges he also orchestrated the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002, in which 13 people were killed, including three Israeli tourists.
Al-Masri’s death is a blow to al-Qaeda and comes amid rumors in the Middle East about the fate of the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The officials could not confirm those reports but said the US intelligence community was trying to determine their credibility.
Al-Masri was one of the earliest members of al-Qaeda and likely the next in line to lead the terror group after its current chief, al-Zawahri.
Al-Masri’s assassination has not been publicly acknowledged by the US, Israel, Iran or al-Qaeda.
Two of the officials — one within the intelligence community and with direct knowledge of the operation and another former CIA officer briefed on the matter — said al-Masri was killed by Kidon, a unit within the Israeli spy organization Mossad allegedly responsible for the assassination of high-value targets. In Hebrew, Kidon means bayonet or “tip of the spear.”
Israel’s Channel 12 news on Saturday night specified that the gunmen were Mossad agents. Channel 13, by contrast, said the gunmen were likely “foreign agents activated by Israel.”
According to The New York Times account of the assassination, al-Masri was driving his sedan close to his home when two Israeli agents on a motorcycle pulled up alongside his vehicle and fired five shots from a silenced pistol, killing him and his daughter, Miriam, who was married to Osama bin Laden’s late son Hamza bin Laden.
Israeli agents had in past years assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists using shooters on motorcycles, similar to al-Masri’s killing, according to foreign reports.
Al-Masri was planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish Diaspora targets when he was killed, Channel 12 also reported.
“Abu Muhammad al-Masri had recently begun planning attacks against Israelis and Jewish targets in the world,” the Israeli TV report said, quoting unnamed Western intelligence sources. This further underlined why the US and Israel had a “shared interest” in the elimination of this “arch-terrorist,” it said. The US was seeking him for orchestrating the two devastating attacks on embassies in Africa in the 1990s, while Israel alleges he oversaw the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in which three Israelis were killed.
The Mombasa blast, on November 28, 2002, in which a total of 13 people were killed and 80 injured, took place on the eve of Hanukkah. The bomb, in a vehicle that plowed into the hotel, was detonated just as 60 tourists from Israel had checked in.
At around the same time, two missiles were fired at an Israeli Arkia passenger plane taking off from Mombasa airport with 271 people on board. The pilots saw the missiles streak past the plane, and considered an emergency landing, but flew on to Israel, and the plane was escorted home by Israeli fighter planes. Israel then temporarily halted flights to Kenya.
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 New York 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 newspaper that Iran may hold al-Qaeda members to prevent attacks in Iran, or to allow them to conduct operations against the US.
Iran additionally cooperates with the Gaza-based Sunni terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Around the time of al-Masri’s killing, a series of mysterious explosions rocked Iran, hitting several sensitive sites, including the Natanz nuclear facility, a power station, a pipeline and the Parchin military complex outside Tehran.
Iran said in September it had identified those responsible for the sabotage at the Natanz facility, but did not provide further details. Foreign media reports have attributed the explosion, which they said badly damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant, to Israel or the US.