Al Qaeda’s third-ranking leader — a close associate and relative by marriage to Osama bin Laden — is believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal region, U.S. officials said.
The death of Sheik Said Masri, an Egyptian who is believed to act as the terrorist network’s operational leader, would be the latest blow to Al Qaeda, which has suffered a steady degradation of its leadership and ability to mount attacks since the U.S. stepped up its campaign of missile strikes by unmanned aircraft in Pakistan’s tribal region.
“We have strong reason to believe” that Masri is dead, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence information. “He was key to Al Qaeda’s command and control. His death would be a major blow.”
Masri, also known as Mustafa Abu Yazid, was believed to play a role in most of Al Qaeda’s operations, including its finances and its continuing attempts to mount attacks. He is also thought to have been the key conduit to Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, both of whom are thought to play a minimal role in the network’s day-to-day activities because of their need to remain in hiding.
“Masri was the group’s chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning,” the U.S. official said.
Like some other militant leaders, Masri has been erroneously reported dead in the past. U.S. officials discussed Masri’s apparent death Monday after a statement began appearing on extremist websites announcing that he had been killed in Pakistan. It did not confirm how he was killed but said that his wife, three daughters and others were killed at the same time, according to the SITE Institute, a private group that monitors militant websites.
The statement claimed that Masri had been training Al Qaeda operatives to carry out future attacks.
“What he left behind will, with permission from Allah, continue to be generous and copious and to produce heroes and raise generations. His death will only be a severe curse by his life upon the infidels. The response is near.”
U.S. officials would not discuss the reports that Masri’s family members had been killed in the drone strike. He is thought to have married into Bin Laden’s family in the years since the two arrived in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say they take steps to minimize the risk of civilian deaths, but in cases when a senior Al Qaeda leader is found, they have to decide on firing a missile even if it means causing noncombatant casualties.
Although severely hobbled and relegated to an ever-smaller sanctuary in Pakistan, Al Qaeda has been able to replace leaders killed or captured, though there was no indication Monday who would take over as operations chief. Masri’s apparent death followed the demise in Pakistan of two other senior Al Qaeda leaders, Abu Laith al Libi, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in December, and Hussein Yemeni, who was reported to have died in an attack in Miram Shah in March.
Under severe pressure over the last year, Al Qaeda has formed closer links with Pakistani militant groups, including Tehrik-e-Taliban, a violent organization that U.S. officials say was involved in training and financing the attempted bombing in Times Square this month.
Masri, who is believed to have been 56, had been involved with Islamic extremist movements for nearly 30 years after joining Zawahiri in a radical organization founded in Egypt. He spent three years in prison in connection with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and later followed Bin Laden to Sudan and Afghanistan, where he was involved in the planning for the Sept. 11 attacks. A report issued by the 9/11 Commission said that Masri had been among the Al Qaeda leaders who had opposed the hijacking operation.
The U.S. has repeatedly captured or killed Al Qaeda members described as the organization’s No. 3 leader since 2001. Masri ascended to the job a few years ago, an official said, and has issued several statements since then promising or taking credit for attacks, including the suicide bombing against a CIA base in Khowst, Afghanistan, last year that killed seven CIA employees and contractors.
Officials would not discuss where the attack occurred in the tribal areas. Many of the U.S. drone strikes are carried out against militants whose identities are not fully known, but the CIA also looks for specific leaders such as Masri whose names are on an approved target list.
After the Times Square attempt, the White House has warned Pakistan that it needs to intensify its effort to crack down on militant groups in the tribal areas. The U.S. has also bluntly warned that it might take action beyond the current drone campaign if there is a successful attack against the U.S. that is traceable to Pakistan.