Qaeda confirms coalition strike killed top leader in Syria

The killing of Masri, described by analysts as "jihadi royalty," could serve as a major security coup for US President Donald Trump early on his presidency. 

Published: 02nd March 2017 10:04 PM  |   Last Updated: 02nd March 2017 10:04 PM   |  A+A-

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BEIRUT:  Al-Qaeda has confirmed that top leader Abu Khayr al-Masri, believed to be the organisation's number two, was killed in a drone strike by the US-led coalition in Syria.

The killing of Masri, described by analysts as "jihadi royalty," could serve as a major security coup for US President Donald Trump early on his presidency. 

Two branches of the global jihadist group, including the powerful Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), announced Masri's death in a statement dated Wednesday.

Calling him a "hero," the statement said Masri "was killed during a Crusader drone strike" in Syria.

"All of al-Sham (Syria) will bear witness to the latest crime of America and the Crusader alliance," the statement said, in reference to the US-led coalition bombing jihadists in Syria and Iraq. 

It also expressed its condolences to Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

A US official said this week that Washington was investigating reports that Masri had been killed in a US strike in or around the city of Idlib in northwest Syria.

The US has escalated its bombing campaign of the province, mostly ruled by Al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, now known as Fateh al-Sham Front. 

In early February, the Pentagon said it killed 11 Al-Qaeda operatives there.

Masri is a son-in-law of Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and is believed to be Zawahiri's deputy.

Masri, also known as Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abdulrahman, joined Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group in the 1980s before they enlisted with Bin Laden in the 1990s.

US intelligence believe al-Masri was involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

He was detained with several other Al-Qaeda figures in 2003 in Iran and held until 2015, when they were traded for the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been seized by Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch.

'Hit list'

Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute described al-Masri as "jihadi royalty," as a longstanding member of Al-Qaeda's central Shura Council and "one of Ayman al-Zawahiri's closest long-time confidants."

His death would "almost certainly necessitate some form of response, whether from Syria or elsewhere in the world," he said.

Trump has put tackling so-called "radical Islamic extremism" at the top of his agenda.

He is currently considering a review of the fight against the Islamic State group, aiming to intensify the campaign and is poised to revive efforts to ban travels from certain Muslim-majority countries.

Masri's presence in Idlib province underscores the importance that country has gained in Al-Qaeda's strategy, analysts said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said earlier this week that a February 26 coalition raid on the town of Mastumah in Idlib province had killed Masri. 

"In the last two to three months, the US has vastly escalated its air strikes on Al-Qaeda leaders, training camps, and meeting points," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

"This indicates that they are working off a hit list," he said. 

Masri was born in the Nile Delta city of Kafr al-Shaykh in November 1957, during Gamal Abdel Nasser's rule.

He was one of the most prominent figures in Al-Qaeda to have roots in the era before the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the Soufan Group, a private security and intelligence consultancy.

"It was in al-Masri's guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed briefed top Al-Qaeda leaders about the planning of the September 11, 2001 attacks," the Soufan Group said.

According to Treasury Department sanctions, Masri was previously responsible for coordinating Al-Qaeda's work "with other terrorist organisations."

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