What’s Behind Israel’s Reported Hit on Al-Qaida Leader in Iran

Israeli assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah in August is a psychological blow to Iran's Revolutionary Guards – but who is best served by releasing details of the killing now?

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah aka Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah aka Abu Mohammed al-Masri.Credit: HANDOUT - AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Israel's assassination of a senior Al-Qaida leader in Tehran three months ago, as reported by The New York Times on Saturday, proves once again that Iran is not terra incognita for Israeli intelligence operatives.

According to reports, Mossad agents, backed by precise intelligence provided by Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200, have operated in Iran many times over the past decade – mainly against its nuclear sites and scientists. At least five scientists were gunned down or blown up there between 2009 and 2012.

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Another striking example of how Iran is penetrable came in early 2018, when Mossad combatants stole Iran’s nuclear archive and smuggled it – according to foreign reports through Azerbaijan – into Israel.

Workers taking casualties out of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya following the Al-Qaida bombing in 1998.Credit: AFP

The assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, aka Abu Muhammad al-Masri (as well as previous operations on Iranian soil), is a morale-sapping and psychological blow to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sheltered him for nearly two decades. It makes the Guards realize that Israeli intelligence has good sources in Iran. After each “defeat,” Iranian intelligence chiefs must ask themselves who’s next, and open a new hunt to locate the traitors. And when they’re in pursuit of real or imaginary enemies, their mind is preoccupied with defending themselves and they have less time to hatch offensive plots.

Abdullah and his Al-Qaida organization have never been a major target for Israeli intelligence, unless they deliberately plotted against Israeli and Jewish targets around the globe. Then there’s the fact that Al-Qaida has been seriously weakened in recent years due to the decapitation of its founding fathers, including Osama bin Laden, his son Hamza (who was married to Abdullah’s daughter, Miriam, who was also killed by the assassins in August) and other leaders of the older generation. The group’s leader since bin Laden’s death in 2011, the aging Ayman al-Zawahiri, is rumored to have died recently of an illness.

Abdullah’s main role was masterminding the near-simultaneous 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded more than 4,000. The two attacks made the American public aware of the existence of bin Laden as a master terrorist and number one enemy of the United States.

The aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which was masterminded by Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.Credit: AP

Abdullah also played a minor role in the terror attack on a hotel in Mombasa that killed three Israeli tourists and 13 Kenyans in November 2002. Luckily, the near-simultaneous attack on an Arkia Airlines flight by an Al-Qaida cell failed when their missiles missed the aircraft after it had taken off, en route to Tel Aviv.

According to reports, with the help of the CIA and the Kenyan security agency, the Mossad launched a major manhunt for the Al-Qaida perpetrators in the Horn of Africa. However, due to lack of information and technological capabilities, and unfamiliarity with the region, the Mossad failed to track them down. It was only in Somalia, in 2009, that U.S. Navy Seals were able to kill the ringleader, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, in a helicopter raid. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list due to his involvement in the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy attacks, as well as Mombasa.

It’s hard to believe that the Mossad would allocate precious resources and manpower to chase down and eliminate Abdullah for his marginal involvement in the Mombasa attacks. Therefore, it’s more likely that the CIA subcontracted the Mossad to lend a hand in the manhunt for Abdullah. The Mossad’s readiness to assist the CIA is more evidence of how intimate the relations are between the two agencies, and how closely they work together not only in gathering and sharing intelligence at headquarters level, but also during field operations.

Kenyan police guard the entrance to the Paradise Hotel, in Kikambala near Mombasa, Kenya Thursday Nov, 28 , 2002 after it was devastated by a car bomb.Credit: AP

We already witnessed one such operation in Damascus in February 2008, after it was reported that the Mossad and CIA had worked hand in hand to blow up Imad Mughniyeh, the “defense minister” of Hezbollah and a close ally of Iran. Because of his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of American, Israeli, French and Arab citizens, Mughniyeh was wanted by the FBI, Mossad and several other security services.

It’s worth mentioning the difference between Israeli and American motivations when it comes to targeting terrorists. Israel turns to targeted killings as a last resort and acts not out of revenge but only to prevent future attacks. The United States, on the other hand, has a much longer memory and is also committed to executing revenge operations. Its law enforcement agencies never forget, and tirelessly hunt terrorists and criminals until justice is achieved.

It’s also reasonable to assume that because he was a minor target for Israel, the Mossad would not have risked its own staff combatants to kill Abdullah. Most probably, the Israeli foreign service activated foreigners who had worked on similar operations in the past. In this context, it’s important to note that Iran and some foreign media outlets have accused Israel of previously working with Iranian opposition groups or mercenaries.

Finally, the timing of the publication is interesting. It’s highly likely that the information about the August 7 operation was leaked to The New York Times by the U.S. intelligence community only after it made sure the operational risk would be minimal and that agents and modes of operations would not be put in harm’s way.

Most probably, such a leak was also coordinated in advance with the Mossad and approved by it. It certainly helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu elevate his image as a tough leader, at a time when opposition parties and half the Israeli public are demanding his resignation.

However, one can assume that the leak was facilitated by the U.S. intelligence community and not by the White House. Otherwise, the defeated president, Donald Trump, would have rushed to spill the beans – as he did in the past – and take credit for it.

It’s also interesting to note that the story was released after the U.S. presidential election. It’s not out of the question that U.S. intelligence agencies, Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen wanted to send a clear message to President-elect Joe Biden, and to remind him that America has to be strong and determined whenever it deals with Iran.

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