A top al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head may have been among six people killed in a pre-dawn explosion in Pakistan’s tribal region on Monday. CBS News reports that a Pakistani intelligence official confirmed that Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was killed in the strike. A Fox News account states that al-Masri’s wife, who was injured in the blast, has confirmed his death. U.S. officials have not yet confirmed his death, but according to one interviewed by the Associated Press, “There is a real sense that this guy is gone.”
Local militants have recovered and buried the remains of six people killed in the strike, complicating efforts to officially identify the body believed to be al-Masri. He had been thought killed in a previous strike on January 2006 that targeted Ayman al-Zawahri.
While U.S. military forces have denied taking part in cross-border operations, the circumstances surrounding the blast are consistent with previous pinpoint strikes against high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets by CIA Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles in South Waziristan, just across the border from Afghanistan. Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda leader, was among those killed in a similar strike on January 29.
Al-Masri (not to be confused with the similarly named Abu Ayyub al-Masri, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq) was a chemical and biological weapons expert and militant trainer for al-Qaeda, and a top associate of Osama bin Laden dating back prior to 9/11. He is credited with directly training hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists in the use of explosives in Afghanistan since the 1990s, including foiled shoe-bomber Richard Reid. He also wrote training manuals for making chemical and biological weapons.
Al-Masri was living in a former religious school several miles from the border with Afghanistan at the time of the attack, and was said to be training suicide bombers and building vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) for cross-border attacks.
A Reuters account of the developing story tellingly notes that Pakistani officials are not told in advance of coalition operations inside Pakistan’s borders. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the largest intelligence-gathering service in Pakistan, has been closely linked with the Taliban, and there is concern that the organization may be helping shield top al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. This concern was corroborated in a Pak Tribune article, in which a local militant commander confirmed that sources in the Pakistani government usually inform them of U.S. strikes upon militant positions in South Waziristan.
The strike occurred as Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was in Washington, D.C., on a trip that saw him meet with President Bush and make a “strong commitment” to fighting terrorism within Pakistan. Gilani was made prime minister in March, after an election that saw the Pakistan Peoples Party gain 84 seats after former Pakistani prime minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by militants aligned with al-Qaeda.