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Iran’s Questionable Denials About Harboring al-Qaida’s No. 2

U.S. --FBI wanted poster of Abdullah Ahmed Abudallah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
U.S. --FBI wanted poster of Abdullah Ahmed Abudallah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
Saeed Khatibzadeh

Saeed Khatibzadeh

Spokesman, Iran's Foreign Ministry

Iran's Foreign Ministry “rejected the false news of the presence of al-Qaida members in Iran and refused certain media reports claiming that one official of the terrorist group was assassinated in Iran.”

Likely False

On November 14, Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied that a top al-Qaida operative was assassinated in Iran. The denial followed a report in the New York Times on November 7 that one of al-Qaida’s founders and second-in-command, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was killed in a high-end Tehran suburban on August 7, along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son. According to the Times, the assassinations were done by “Israeli operatives” for the United States.

Abdullah, whose nom de guerre ­– Abu Muhammad al-Masri – points to his Egyptian origin, has long been on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a promise of a $10 million reward. The U.S. Justice Department indicted al-Masri for alleged involvement in the August 7, 1998, coordinated bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenia that killed 224 people.

Kenya - Rescuers working to help survivors amid the devastation brought in by a bomb explosion near the US embassy in Nairobi, August 7, 1998.
Kenya - Rescuers working to help survivors amid the devastation brought in by a bomb explosion near the US embassy in Nairobi, August 7, 1998.

“Media should not become a loudspeaker for the White House to spread such lies,” and “not get trapped by the Hollywood scenarios by US and Israeli officials,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman said, according to the state news agency IRNA.

Khatibzadeh claimed Times report was “false news,” that his government has not allowed al-Qaida members on Iranian soil, and that an “official” of that terrorist group has not been killed in Iran.

Iran’s claims that it hasn’t hosted al-Qaida members and that al-Masri was not killed in Iran are likely false.

Jacob Zenn, editor of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, told that “the reports of Israel assassinating al-Masri in Iran could be true because Israel has serious intelligence assets in Iran, which is how it has even targeted Iranian nuclear facilities and stolen documents from top-secret Iranian nuclear research centers.”

Zenn cautioned, however, that “we don’t have enough public evidence” to fully confirm the reports and that it “does not seem al-Qaida corroborated that al-Masri was killed by Israel.” U.S. National Security Council officials and Israeli officials declined comment to the Times.

The New York Times report relies on four unidentified U.S. intelligence officials. Since mid-October, other sources have reported aspects of al-Masri’s assassination that fit with the Times account, which includes details of the place, time and method.

Here is how the Times said it happened:

“American intelligence officials say that Mr. 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.

“Around 9:00 on a warm summer night, he was driving his white Renault L90 sedan with his daughter near his home when two gunmen on a motorcycle drew up beside him. Five shots were fired from a pistol fitted with a silencer. Four bullets entered the car through the driver’s side and a fifth hit a nearby car.”

Iranian media and journalists who cover the country for foreign outlets reported that a 58-year-old history teacher of Lebanese origin, Habib Daoud, and his daughter were shot dead at the same place and time described by the Times.

The Times said Habib Daoud (other sources spell the last name as Dawoud) was a fake identity Iranian officials had given al-Masri.

That information was supported by the former leader of Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Nabil Naeem. He told the Saudi news agency Al-Arabia in October that he had been friends with al-Masri and that the latter had been living in Iran under a cover name.

A senior Afghan security source told Reuters in October that al-Masri was assassinated in Tehran’s Pasdaran suburb, which also supported the Times’ assertion that al-Masri and Daoud were the same person.

The Dubai Arabic language TV network was among the first media to report al-Masri’s killing in Iran. On October 22, cited an al-Qaida affiliated Twitter account, “Jassim News,” which was deleted hours after tweeting: “The assassination of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, 'Habib Dawoudi', in Pasdaran Street in Tehran ... and the end of the era of the safe Al-Qaeda host in Iran." cited other sources reporting that the man assassinated in Tehran was indeed not a “Lebanese professor.”

Other al-Qaida-affiliated sources confirmed that al-Masri remained in Iran after he was released from custody in 2015.

Intelligence sources in the U.S. and other countries have previously claimed that Iran harbored al-Qaida members. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified at a Senate hearing in May 2019: “There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al-Qaida. Period.”

Other U.S. officials contended there was no “operational alliance” between Iran and al-Qaida but did not dispute that Iran has hosted al-Qaida members, some of them since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., including Osama bin Laden’s son.

“The documents that U.S. special forces picked up in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when they killed Osama bin Laden provide the most visible evidence that senior al-Qaida members have been in Iran and maintained contact to Bin Laden while there,” Zenn said. He noted that “the CIA and other intelligence agencies must have numerous other pieces of evidence of this, not all of which are available to the public.”