A top Al Qaeda leader, who happens to be a distant in-law of Osama Bin Laden, was killed in August this year. But his death has just been revealed. Here we explain why.
“Al Qaeda loses one of its most experienced leaders in mysterious murder in Tehran,” said a CNN headline more than three months after the assassination of a man named Abu Mohammed al-Masri, whose real name is Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah. The CNN's report also carried a black and white picture of Abdullah, whose code name appears to be Masri, according to the leading American news outlet.
According to various sources, he was a high-ranking Al Qaeda operator, but Iranians have been vehemently denying that the alleged killing was related to the extremist group. Tehran, however, asserts that the assassinated person was in fact linked to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia group in Lebanon.
Western media has also carried reports suggesting Masri was killed by Israeli agents on behalf of US authorities.
“Nothing more than what you already might know, it [the assassination] happened in the summer, a day after the Beirut port explosion, and we heard that the person was someone related to Hezbollah according to some anonymous sources,” said Fatima A Karimkhan, a senior reporter at Iranian Student News Agency (IRNA), a state-funded media outlet.
“They [Iranian authorities] still have their own approach to the case, the man was a history teacher,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
Iran maintained that the assassinated person had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but first identified him as a Lebanese history teacher with a name, Habib Dawood. Since then, they neither have confirmed the name nor have they stuck with it when referring to the case.
What is known, however, is that the killing took place on August 7 on a street where the family of Iraq’s top Shia militia leader, Abu Mahdi al Mohandes, lives. Mohandes was killed by an American operation alongside Iran's legendary general Qassem Soleimani earlier this year.
Despite having different theories about the assassination, all parties, including Americans, Israelis and Iranians, are talking about the same person - Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, or to go by his code name, Masri, according to Karimkhan.
As a matter of fact, Masri was an Egyptian-origin top Al Qaeda operator.
But why was his killing exposed so late?
A cryptic message to Biden?
According to several media outlets' sources in Israel and TRT World's sources in Iran, the two states perceive the late reporting of Masri’s death as a warning sign to Biden for not trying to get close to Iran.
“If they (Israeli intelligence) really did it for the US, sure Donald Trump would have used it before the election. But he didn't,” says Karimkhan.
As the Iranian journalist questioned, it still appears difficult to explain why Trump has not used the killing if it was done by a joint Israel-US operation.
“So I see a bit of propaganda in this recent claim. Maybe Israel wants to put more pressure on Iran, maybe it is because of their new worries about the [Joe] Biden presidency,” Karimkhan analyses.
A recent Haaretz report confirms Karimkhan’s account.
"According to intelligence sources in Israel, revelation of the assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, also known as Abu Mohammed al-Masri, is meant to convey a message to President-elect Biden, who intends to renew negotiations with Iran,” said the Israeli newspaper report.
“Israel wishes to portray Tehran as a terror incubator for the organization that was responsible for the September 11 attacks," the report added.
The killing exposes a mysterious relationship between Iran, a Shia-majority country, and Al Qaeda, a Sunni-dominant organisation. Tehran has allied with Washington against Daesh, which used to call itself Al Qaeda in Iraq before its separation from the group, and has regarded Al Qaeda as its enemy.
However, Masri, a high profile Al Qaeda veteran, a relative of Bin Laden, called Iran home for nearly two decades. Masri’s 27-year-old daughter, Maryam, who was married to Laden’s son Hamza in Tehran in 2005, was also killed in the August attack. Hamza was allegedly killed in a previous attack - however the timing of his death is still being disputed.
“This exposes the regime in Iran as one that provides a haven for the organization that’s most significant to the United States,” a former senior Israeli defense official told Haaretz.
"It's undeniably convenient for Iran to operate Al-Qaeda against the United States because of sanctions or to exact a price for the assassination of Soleimani,” the same former official claimed.
Iran denies any relationship with Al Qaeda. A top foreign ministry official accused both the US and Israel of trying "to tie Iran to such groups by lying and leaking false information to the media in order to avoid responsibility for the criminal activities of this group and other terrorist groups in the region.”
The New York Times, which has strongly backed Biden over Trump in the US elections, was the first media outlet to publish an article concerning the assassination based on completely anonymous Israeli intelligence sources.
“Why they [Iranians] refused to accept, I think it's obvious! Iran still insists that Al Qaeda leaders and it's network is not active in Iran,” says an anonymous Iranian source.
The source also thinks that Iran, which has an assertive political agenda across the Middle East, running several proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, does not want to show its own weaknesses.
“Of course they don't accept that Israel has this much operation capabilities inside Iran,” the source adds.
Iranian ‘happiness’ with Biden
Ordinary Iranians, along with their top politicians, have expressed happiness about Democrat Joe Biden’s win over Trump, who withdrew from a Barack Obama-era landmark nuclear deal and imposed expansive sanctions over Tehran. Trump has also firmly backed Israel against Iran.
“It was one of the best things that happened to Iranians in recent weeks, you could see the happiness in the streets after the final result was out,” Karimkhan describes the Iranian mood across the country.
Most Iranians expect that Biden will end Washington’s current hostile approach towards Tehran, and revive good ties with the Shia-majority country. Iran's high expectations for the US president-elect has a history: Biden as Obama’s Vice-President presided over a time when relations were healthy between Iran and America.
Since early January, when Soleimani was killed by a US missile attack, Iran has faced many troubles, ranging from mysterious explosions in its military and nuclear facilities, to a Covid-19 surge. The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 40,000 citizens.
In addition to this, Israelis have targeted Iran-backed Shia militias both in Iraq and Syria in an increasing trend.
A Wall Street Journal article, published on Monday, exposed that Trump, who is projected to leave office on January 20, discussed with his top advisers a possible strike against an Iranian nuclear facility as a UN report suggested that Tehran has increased the level of its low uranium enrichment supply.
Top aides refused Trump’s demand to strike Iran, the WSJ report said.