- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2008

Senior al Qaeda planner Abu Obeida al Masri, identified by authorities as a key suspect in the 2005 London transit bombings and a foiled 2006 plot to blow up U.S.-bound commercial airliners, has died, U.S. counterterrorism officials said yesterday.

Described as a “senior external operations planner” for Osama bin Laden and third in command of the al Qaeda terrorist network, al Masri reportedly died last year in the tribal areas along lawless sections of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border of either hepatitis or a blood disease, the officials said.

One U.S. law-enforcement authority said al Qaeda had held off an announcement of the death “in hopes that they could claim martyrdom” as part of a terrorist operation, but none materialized. The death of the Egyptian national reportedly occurred during the past several months.

U.S. and foreign authorities yesterday said it was too early to assess the impact of al Masri’s death on al Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks, but they noted that he already has been replaced by another Egyptian, Sheik Sayed al Masri, who was in charge of al Qaeda’s finances.

Authorities said Obeida al Masri served as a paramilitary commander in eastern Afghanistan and rose within the al Qaeda ranks after the death of Abu Hamza Rabia, another Egyptian, in a missile strike in Pakistan in 2005.

Air strikes targeting al Qaeda militants in Pakistan in January killed another top al Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al Libi, described as a senior leader thought to have plotted and executed attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, including a February 2007 bombing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Another top al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, once described as the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq, was killed in June 2006 when U.S. warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs on his safe house. Zarqawi’s death was considered America”s single-biggest victory in nearly five years of fighting Islamist terrorism.

In Pakistan, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Associated Press he had no information about Obeida al Masri’s death. The Pakistani government initially reported in 2006 that Obeida al Masri had been killed during a CIA Predator aircraft strike.

Obeida al Masri, operating out of the mountainous Afghan province of Kunar, is thought to have been in charge of planning attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces. Violence in southern and eastern Afghanistan spiked last year, leaving about 1,600 people dead, including a surge in suicide attacks — a change of tactics by the militants.

He has been identified as one of one of the planners behind the London transit suicide attacks in July 2005. A series of coordinated bomb blasts rocked London’s public transportation system during the morning rush hour, with three bombs exploding within 50 seconds of each other on three London Underground trains.

A fourth bomb exploded on a bus nearly an hour later. The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four suicide bombers, while injuring another 700. It was the largest and deadliest terrorist attack on London in the city’s history.

Obeida al Masri also has been tied to a failed plot to explode trans-Atlantic flights bound for the United States and Canada in 2006.