Al-Qaida Planner Masri Believed Dead
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
One of al-Qaida's top terrorism planners is believed to have died in Pakistan from natural causes. U.S. intelligence officials say an Egyptian who went by the name Abu Obeida al-Masri died several weeks ago of hepatitis. Terrorism analysts believe al-Masri was al-Qaida's chief of external operations before he became ill. They say he planned terror attacks in Western Europe and possibly the United States.
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: The man who took Abu Obeida al-Masri as his nom de guerre was one of the most battle-hardened fighters in the al-Qaida network, a veteran of wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, and an explosives expert who lost two fingers in one operation. But he was also a strategic planner. He's been linked to the last two major al-Qaida plots - the 2005 subway and bus bombings in London and the plot in 2006 to blow up 10 U.S. commercial airliners over the Atlantic.
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University says that experience propelled al-Masri to the top of the al-Qaida leadership.
Dr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert; Security Studies, Georgetown University): He was of this al-Qaida generation that was able to make the transition from rural guerrilla fighter to urban terrorist. And his involvement in the 2006 plot, possibly the 2005 plot, demonstrates someone that can fight on multiple levels, that can fight both in a guerrilla setting but also can take a terrorist campaign into the heart of the West.
GJELTEN: His death is a loss to al-Qaida, but Hoffman points out that al-Masri himself was not the original planner of the 2006 airliner plot. As a top al-Qaida operator, he followed in the footsteps of others who were killed or captured and he, too, can be replaced.
Dr. HOFFMAN: We killed one of his predecessors, Hamza Rabia, in November 2005. And that's what I think is so worrisome. If here we actually kill the al-Qaida handler or the al-Qaida controller and the attack isn't derailed, they merely just handed it off to someone else.
GJELTEN: There is in fact a new pool of al-Qaida volunteers who have been recruited in the past few years after 9/11 and who are being trained to carry out terrorist missions. Still, experience counts for something.
Dr. WILLIAM McCANTS (Combating Terrorism Center Fellow, West Point): It's one thing to kill off a foot soldier, it's quite another to replace someone with serious operational capability.
GJELTEN: Will McCants, with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says no mater how many young al-Qaida volunteers are ready for terrorism missions, they're not worth as much to the network as someone like al-Masri.
Dr. McCANTS: That's not as important as somebody who had been around for decades, that has not only the academic or book knowledge of what to do but has actually been in difficult situations and knew how to maneuver and escape. And I think that kind of knowledge and wisdom is very difficult to replicate quickly.
GJELTEN: The United States and other governments have had significant success going after al-Qaida leaders at al-Masri's level. Several have been targeted by missile strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Bruce Hoffman says it's significant that al-Masri died of hepatitis, presumably a consequence of the conditions under which he operated.
Dr. HOFFMAN: Not only are they existing in a fairly harsh geographic climate, they're also, in essence, on the run, and that's exactly as we wanted, because that leads to all kinds of mistakes whether it's mistakes in personal hygiene or mistakes perhaps in tipping their hand and allowing us to identify them and then target them.
GJELTEN: U.S. intelligence officials say al-Masri actually died several weeks ago, at least, but they were not able to confirm his death until recently.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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