Abstract: Now is an opportune time to revisit the question of succession to the leadership of al-Qa`ida, for a number of reasons: the organization’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is 68 years old and reported to have a potentially serious heart complaint; bin Ladin’s heir apparent, his son Hamza, is reported by the United States to have been killed in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region; and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qa`ida’s principal rival, the Islamic State, is also dead. An analysis of al-Qa`ida’s history and current decision-making structure points to one man in particular: the longtime jihadi commander known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri. Abu Muhammad has long played a critical role in al-Qa`ida, both as an operational commander and as a member of the governing shura council. Yet despite his importance to the organization, Abu Muhammad remains a shadowy figure. Little is known about his early life or his current activities. Unlike most al-Qa`ida Central figures, he is based not in northern Pakistan but in Iran, where he was previously imprisoned and now resides under a murky arrangement by which he is apparently allowed a great deal of freedom while still being barred from leaving the country.

The fall of 1998 marked a high point in Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s career. He had just returned to Afghanistan from East Africa, where he had masterminded al-Qa`ida’s deadliest attack on the United States yet—the twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.1 He had positioned himself as one of Usama bin Ladin’s key confidants, to be consulted on the planning of all major attacks. And he had risen to the leadership of al-Qa`ida’s network of training camps.

Around this time, reports came to Abu Muhammad that a certain recruit, a Palestinian-Jordanian named Abu Moutassem, was behaving strangely.2 Despite claiming a history in the jihad stretching back over a decade, he struggled to control his rifle. He had a suspiciously large amount of cash, as well as a valid visa for Afghanistan in his passport—a formality with which most self-respecting jihadis would not bother. And he was overheard talking on the phone apparently speaking in code.3 Abu Jandal, bin Ladin’s bodyguard, had a concise take on the matter: “If that chap is a jihadi,” he said to al-Qa`ida’s military chief, Abdel Hadi al-Iraqi, “you can cut my arms off!”

Abu Muhammad had Abu Moutassem arrested and proceeded to interrogate him personally. It was not long before Abu Moutassem confessed that he was working for Jordanian intelligence. “I’m ready to tell you everything,” the terrified spy told Abu Muhammad, “so long as you guarantee me a fair trial.”

Evidently Abu Muhammad calculated that the prospect of a fair hearing was worth the potentially valuable intelligence Abu Moutassem might provide. Instead of shooting the man on the spot as many other jihadis might have done, he bundled the Jordanian into a car and drove him to Logar, south of Kabul, to meet face-to-face with bin Ladin. Saif al-`Adl, the hot-headed Egyptian former paratrooper then serving as al-Qa`ida’s security chief, was less eager to show mercy to the unmasked spy. Al-`Adl quickly pulled together a lynch mob of fellow jihadis and followed Abu Muhammad’s vehicle.

When they arrived at Logar, Abu Muhammad confronted al-`Adl – and his crew, demanding to know why they had come and reminding them of an ugly previous incident in which some of the same men had beaten another alleged spy to death. Al-Qa`ida was not the government of Afghanistan; the Taliban was. Indeed, bin Ladin had recently sworn allegiance in secret to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. As Abu Muhammad said, “Al-Qa`ida does not want to be accused of taking the law into its own hands by interrogating suspects or, even worse, killing them without referring the matter to the Taliban first.”

In response, al-`Adl and his gang did something unusual—they backed down. The spy was handed over to the Taliban, pumped for intelligence, and eventually freed.

This incident showcases the high regard in which Abu Muhammad al-Masri has been held within al-Qa`ida. The episode also provides a window into Abu Muhammad’s personality. For unlike many jihadis, who are motivated by feeling and passion, Abu Muhammad’s actions seem to be governed by logic and calculation.

This article aims to synthesize what is known about Abu Muhammad al-Masri, draw some conclusions as to his current and future role, and assess what some of the implications may be for global jihad.

First in Line
Understanding Abu Muhammad is important because as the United Nations Sanctions Coordinator recently noted, he and Saif al-`Adl are “next in line” to take over the al-Qa`ida leadership from a potentially ailing Ayman al-Zawahiri.4 In fact, as this article will make clear, of all living jihadis, Abu Muhammad al-Masri has the strongest claim to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as emir of al-Qa`ida. In early 2001, al-Qa`ida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) merged after a long courtship. Usama bin Ladin named EIJ’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as his deputy and successor, much to the chagrin of some in al-Qa`ida who saw the Egyptian as an interloper.5 Beneath al-Zawahiri in the hierarchy stood the group’s military chief, Mohammed Atef (also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri and not to be confused with lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta). Underneath Atef was a trio of fellow Egyptians: Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, both of whom had been with al-Qa`ida since its inception, and Abu al-Khair al-Masri, who came with al-Zawahiri from EIJ.

After the 9/11 attacks, Atef became the only senior al-Qa`ida leader to stay behind in Kandahar. (He was practically bedridden, thanks to a herniated spinal disc.6) He was killed in a U.S. airstrike on his home in November 2001.7 In the number-three slot, this left the trio of senior Egyptians—Abu al-Khair, Saif al-`Adl, and Abu Muhammad—roughly equal in rank. A few years later, in correspondence recovered from bin Ladin’s Abbottabad compound, the al-Qa`ida founder explicitly put Abu al-Khair and Abu Muhammad, in that order, ahead of al-`Adl (albeit possibly as a means of venting his displeasure at an article attributed to al-`Adl that urged the creation of an Islamic State in Iraq, something the al-Qa`ida leader saw as premature).8

At some point between the death of Usama bin Ladin in May 2011 and that of the Yemeni operative Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June 2015, members of al-Qa`ida’s governing shura council signed documents apparently intended to formalize bin Ladin’s intentions with regard to the succession.9 They agreed that in the event of al-Zawahiri’s death or incapacitation, leadership would pass first to Abu al-Khair, then to Abu Muhammad, then to Saif al-`Adl.10 This line of succession, of course, was established before al-Qa`ida began publicly grooming Hamza bin Ladin as a future leader, but this would likely not have affected Abu Muhammad’s place in the queue. His generation would have been given a chance to lead before the torch passed to jihadis of Hamza’s age. Regardless, Hamza’s death, apparently confirmed in September 2019, removes any potential ambiguity.11 And in any event, signed promises carry great weight among jihadis.

In late 2015 or early 2016, Abu al-Khair, having been named as “general deputy” to al-Zawahiri, was sent to Syria to serve as al-Zawahiri’s personal representative to al-Qa`ida-aligned jihadi groups fighting in that conflict. Abu al-Khair was killed in Idlib province in February 2017 when a missile from a U.S. drone struck his car.12 According to what is known about al-Qa`ida’s succession, that leaves Abu Muhammad al-Masri first in line to inherit the leadership.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called “caliph” of the Islamic State, further raises the stakes for the next emir of al-Qa`ida. The Islamic State began life as an al-Qa`ida franchise, and only split from the parent organization in 2014. Since then, scholars and analysts have speculated on whether and how the two groups might merge once more. Ayman al-Zawahiri is unlikely to be capable of leading such a reconciliation, given the perception of him as an interloper who spent most of his career with a different organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But Abu Muhammad, as will be outlined, has been with al-Qa`ida from the very beginning and would therefore face no such impediment. Moreover, al-Baghdadi’s death bequeaths the Islamic State its own succession challenge: with so many of its senior leaders dead or captured, the group has resorted to promoting virtual unknowns. Its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had no name recognition among global jihadis when the group announced he had become ‘caliph’ and has not yet been seen nor heard from.13 a Moreover, much of the animosity between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida has built up around a war of words between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi personally; with both of them gone, reconciliation could become markedly easier. Abu Muhammad, should he succeed al-Zawahiri relatively soon, will therefore potentially enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to bring former Islamic State members into the al-Qa`ida fold.

Generation Jihad
Abu Muhammad was born Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah in June 1963 in Gharbia, a governorate of Lower Egypt in the central Nile Delta.14 As a young man, he played soccer professionally for a club in the Egyptian premier league.15 Given his age, he was also part of a generation of Egyptian Sunnis vulnerable to radicalization. He would have been 15 years old when Iran became a Shi`a theocracy and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace deal with Menachem Begin’s Israel; 16 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; and 18 when Sadat was assassinated by a cell of EIJ, the organization Ayman al-Zawahiri would later lead.

Abu Muhammad al-Masri (FBI)

For disaffected Arab youths of Abu Muhammad’s generation, Afghanistan’s decade-long struggle against Soviet occupation, from 1979 to 1989, acted as a lightning rod. Usama bin Ladin bankrolled hundreds of foreign fighters—known as “Arab Afghans”—using his share of the bin Ladin family’s vast fortune. Abu Muhammad was among the many who came into bin Ladin’s orbit in this way.

By the early summer of 1988, the war-weary Soviet Union had begun to withdraw from Afghanistan, but several Arab governments—foremost among them Abu Muhammad’s native Egypt—blocked the return of their nationals who had fought in the conflict. It was out of this subculture of stranded foreign fighters that, in or around August 1988, bin Ladin founded a new, explicitly international, emphatically religious organization called al-Qa`ida al-Askariya—the Military Base.16 Membership in the new group was to be limited to militants whose presence in Afghanistan was of “open duration”—in other words, indefinite.17 In effect, given the Egyptian government’s crackdown on returning foreign fighters, that requirement meant that a disproportionate number of founding members would be Egyptian. From the earliest days of al-Qa`ida, bin Ladin singled out the Egyptians for particular praise, saying, “Their standing with us in the darkest of circumstances cannot be ignored.”18 As will be seen, this preponderance of a single nationality was to create tensions further down the line, but for now, al-Qa`ida was grateful for the manpower.

Abu Muhammad was with the organization from the very start. During the opening stages of the 2001 ground invasion of Afghanistan, a team of U.S. investigators—this author among them—recovered a treasure trove of documents from the rubble of various al-Qa`ida facilities and safe houses. Among the finds was a list of 170 “charter members” of al-Qa`ida. On that list, Abu Muhammad al-Masri is listed seventh, one position up from fellow Egyptian and future shura council member Saif al-`Adl.19 In the annals of jihadism, this fact alone would accord Abu Muhammad a semi-mystical significance—even apart from the rise to greater prominence that lay in his future.

Afghanistan, however, was quickly becoming less than ideal as a base for al-Qa`ida. Following the end of the Soviet occupation, the local armed factions that had hitherto fought the Soviet Union began battling each other for control of the country. Al-Qa`ida had little to gain from being drawn into such an internecine conflict. Besides, as luck would have it, the organization already enjoyed a standing offer of safe harbor from the new Islamist government of Sudan. Over the winter of 1991-1992, therefore, bin Ladin moved his organization’s base of operations from Afghanistan to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.20

Shortly thereafter, a prominent Sudanese cleric paid a visit to bin Ladin at an al-Qa`ida guesthouse in al-Riyadh, one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. The cleric brought with him an unlikely guest—a man named Sheikh Nomani, known as a high-ranking representative of the Iranian government.21 It might seem strange for a Sunni terrorist to sip tea with an emissary of the world’s foremost Shi`a power, but it should be remembered that bin Ladin was always significantly less strident in his criticism of Shi`a Muslims than most in the jihadi movement—in part, perhaps, because his mother hailed from a closely related sect, the Syrian Alawites.22

Besides, Iran had in the past aided Sunni militant groups like Hamas and EIJ, and bin Ladin had an idea for how al-Qa`ida and Iran might make common cause against the West.23 Iran’s most powerful terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, had grown notorious for truck bombings like the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American personnel had died. Bin Ladin wanted his operatives trained to use similar techniques.24

Evidently, the Iranian regime did see a potential use for al-Qa`ida, for following the meeting, a number of members traveled to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon to receive explosives training from Hezbollah.25 There is no evidence that Abu Muhammad was among those who received training, but in the years that followed, he would put the new techniques to devastating use.b

Black Hawk Down
In 1991, the government of Somalia fell, and the country quickly descended into anarchy, precipitating a humanitarian crisis. In response, the United Nations Security Council authorized a military intervention to shield civilians taking refuge in the south of the country. The operation was led by the United States, which began deploying in December 1992. Almost immediately, bin Ladin issued a fatwa calling for the expulsion of foreign forces from the country—anticipating by three years his 1996 “Declaration of Jihad against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites”—and al-Qa`ida set about establishing a cell in neighboring Kenya to coordinate assistance to local Somali warlords determined to oppose the international presence.26

Abu Muhammad was among a group of al-Qa`ida military trainers sent to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to assist fighters loyal to the warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed.27 Among other things, they instructed Somali militants in the use of rocket launchers to bring down helicopters—something the Afghan mujahideen and some of their “Arab Afghan” allies had famously learned to do with American Stinger missiles against Soviet Hind gunships. This time, however, the targets were American, and the rockets were old Soviet models.

On October 3, 1993, militants trained by Abu Muhammad and his colleagues shot down two Black Hawk helicopters over Mogadishu; in fact, one of the RPGs was fired by a Tunisian al-Qa`ida trainer, Zachariah al-Tunisi (later killed in a coalition airstrike on al-Qa`ida’s military headquarters in the opening days of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001).28 The Mogadishu attacks marked the start of the notorious “Black Hawk Down” incident in which 18 U.S. servicemembers died, several of their bodies being dragged through the streets as cameras rolled.29 This grisly episode precipitated an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Somalia and helped to solidify bin Ladin’s view, later expressed to then-ABC News correspondent John Miller (now Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the New York Police Department) that “the American soldier was just a paper tiger. He was unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled.”30

Al-Qa`ida, too, soon pulled out of Somalia, much to the annoyance of some in the movement who had hoped that the group would go on to establish a power base there.31 Nor did the organization stay in Khartoum; in 1996, the Sudanese government bowed to international pressure and expelled al-Qa`ida from its territory.32

But its attacks in East Africa were not over, and nor was Abu Muhammad’s role in them.

The Northern Group
On May 18, 1996, bin Ladin boarded a plane chartered by the Sudanese government and flew from Khartoum to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in order to take up residence at his old mountain base of Tora Bora.33 The Taliban had not yet overrun the area—al-Qa`ida was hosted, for the time being, by other independent warlords—and would not do so until September. It was by no means clear how the relationship between al-Qa`ida and Afghanistan’s new de facto government would play out. Al-Qa`ida had been shunned by one Islamist regime; the Taliban might do the same. Despite claiming that its goal was to “liberate” Saudi Arabia, the organization was now even more dominated by Egyptians than ever, creating a severe legitimacy problem in the eyes of would-be sympathizers.34 In short, these were precarious times for al-Qa`ida.

Around this critical moment, there arrived at al-Qa`ida’s Jihad Wal training camp a group of 40 experienced jihadis, 38 of them from the Arabian Peninsula. Collectively, they were known as the Northern Group, because they had originally planned to go north to fight in Tajikistan.35 Bin Ladin had his eye on a number of them as potential key operatives. But there was a problem. Al-Qa`ida’s brand of jihad was global, and it used terrorist methods, whereas these men (many of them battle-hardened from the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s or from fighting in the Balkans in the early 1990s) had come to fight in a war—to “fight the enemy face to face,” as one of their number told this author years later—not to plot bombings against foreign civilians.36 Twenty-three of the 40 returned home right away, but bin Ladin spent three days convincing the remaining 17 to join. At the end of the three days, all 17 fighters joined al-Qa`ida, and they included some who would later prove pivotal: Salim Hamdan, bin Ladin’s driver and confidant; Abu Jandal, bin Ladin’s future bodyguard who would become a protégé of Abu Muhammad al-Masri; Mohammed al-Owhali, one of the bombers in the East Africa embassy plot; Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole; and Walid bin Attash (better known as Khallad), a key planner of the Cole bombing and later the 9/11 attacks.37

During this critical three-day conversation, bin Ladin selected three close advisers to be at his side—one of whom was Abu Muhammad al-Masri.38 This was becoming typical of Abu Muhammad, who was increasingly included at the highest levels at all the key moments.

The Embassy Bombings
Shortly after the carnage of Black Hawk Down, al-Qa`ida’s cell in Kenya began gathering intelligence on possible targets in that country. Having reviewed the cell’s surveillance files, bin Ladin and the al-Qa`ida military brass decided to attack the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.39 There were several reasons to choose it: the embassy building was prominent and lightly defended; the ambassador, Aurelia Brazeal, was a woman (a fact which bin Ladin saw as likely to attract heightened attention if she were to die in the attack); and the building housed U.S. personnel working on American policy toward Sudan, which was hostile to the Islamist government there, still at this time al-Qa`ida’s host.40 In mimicry of an old Hezbollah tactic of striking multiple locations at once, al-Qa`ida’s leadership subsequently added another target to the plot—the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, the capital of neighboring Tanzania. To begin with, the leader of the East African cells was al-Qa`ida’s military chief and number two in the organization, a commander named Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri; but al-Banshiri drowned in the M/V Bukoba ferry disaster in Tanzania on May 21, 1996—three days after al-Qa`ida’s move back to Afghanistan.

Right away, al-Banshiri was replaced as head of the East African cells by a rising star in the movement—Abu Muhammad al-Masri, known among the operatives in Kenya and Tanzania by the nom de guerre of Saleh.41 Soon, Abu Muhammad was supervising the building of two truck bombs, each weighing almost a metric ton.42 He was reportedly pleased to be attacking in Kenya, partly because, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he did not like the country or its people.43

At one point, one of the plotters, a Saudi named Mohamed al-Owhali who had come to al-Qa`ida in 1996 as part of the Northern Group, asked him what must have seemed an obvious question: if their enemy was the United States, why not attack there?

“There are targets inside the U.S. we could hit,” Abu Muhammad responded. “But things aren’t ready yet … We have to have many attacks outside the United States and this will weaken the U.S. and make way for our ability to strike within the United States.”44

In the spring of 1998, al-Qa`ida’s military committee, of which Abu Muhammad was a leading member, gave the go-ahead for the East Africa attacks. Abu Muhammad ordered all non-essential personnel out of Kenya and Tanzania and instructed all others to be ready to leave at short notice. Shortly before the planned date of the attacks, Abu Muhammad left Afghanistan to supervise final preparations on the ground in Nairobi.45

As the attacks approached, the normally cool Abu Muhammad seems to have grown increasingly paranoid. One plotter, a Palestinian named Mohammed Odeh, dragged his feet getting his travel documents ready. By August 1, less than a week before the planned bombings, Odeh still did not have his passport in order. For this offense, Abu Muhammad yelled at Odeh in public and in front of a senior member of the Kenya cell.46

Three days later, on August 4, Abu Muhammad and others were in his room at Nairobi’s Hilltop Hotel discussing an article about wanted terrorists that somebody had told them had been published in an Egyptian magazine. The conversation turned to whether the magazine would have printed pictures of the wanted men, and this seemed to spook Abu Muhammad. He began to look agitated and to repeat prayers intended to alleviate anxiety.47 Around the same time, Abu Muhammad saw a television news report that made him think the embassy plots had been exposed.48 Apparently fearing imminent arrest, on the evening of August 5, Abu Muhammad evacuated the Hilltop Hotel and stayed away all night.49 The following day, he left Nairobi bound for Karachi, Pakistan, on Kenya Airways flight 310.50 Abu Muhammad had chosen the next morning, August 7, as the time for the attacks on the basis that “real” Muslims should be at the mosque for Friday prayers.51 Around 10:30 AM, the two truck bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing more than 200 people and dealing massive damage to the two embassy buildings.

In some ways, however, the attacks did not go according to plan. Odeh, the cell member who failed to get his passport in order, was arrested upon arrival in Pakistan, having traveled from Nairobi on a fraudulent Yemeni document apparently forged in haste.52 Perhaps Abu Muhammad cannot be blamed for that particular mishap, but the execution of the attacks, too, was botched. The idea was to force the guards at the embassy compounds to open the gates, then drive the trucks as close to the buildings as possible; in fact, Abu Muhammad’s ideal scenario would have involved bringing the buildings down entirely, the way Hezbollah had done on several occasions.53 In the event, the guards simply refused to open the gates, leaving the trucks to explode on the public streets outside, with their cargo beds (and therefore the majority of the explosive force) facing away from the embassy buildings. One result was that many more locals died than had been intended, along with far fewer Americans; of the 224 combined dead, only 12—just over five percent—were American.54

For these mistakes, Odeh—Abu Muhammad’s underling on the plot—would later explicitly blame Abu Muhammad’s poor planning.55 Nevertheless, the embassy bombings did galvanize al-Qa`ida’s efforts against the United States, particularly because the American response—cruise missiles launched at a largely evacuated camp near Khost—proved so muted relative to the destruction the bombings had inflicted.56 Within a few months of the East Africa bombings, bin Ladin had greenlit the “planes operation,” the plot that would become the 9/11 attacks.57

Abu Muhammad’s Apotheosis
Despite their flawed (from al-Qa`ida’s perspective) execution, the embassy bombings also bolstered Abu Muhammad’s burgeoning career as a terrorist commander. By the end of 2000, he had been appointed as one of the nine members of al-Qa`ida’s shura council, the organization’s governing body (the 10th member being bin Ladin himself).58 He was prominent on the council’s military committee, meaning he was consulted on all planned attacks, including the deadly bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000 and the “planes operation” itself.59 He commanded all al-Qa`ida forces in Kabul, the Afghan capital.60 And he was placed in charge of the organization’s vital network of training camps, replacing a Tunisian, Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi, killed in a battle against the Northern Alliance.61 Salim Hamdan, bin Ladin’s one-time driver, told this author during an interrogation that as head of the camps, Abu Muhammad proved particularly adept at identifying would-be operatives and recommending them for specialized training in techniques like explosives and urban warfare.62

The old tensions between the Egyptians and the rest persisted. Egyptians made up the bulk of the organization, including all but two members of the governing shura council (the exceptions being bin Ladin himself and Abu Hafs al-Mauratani, then the group’s chief cleric, who has since left al-Qa`ida63). Even intramural soccer matches were usually Egyptians versus everybody else.64 Arabs from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf particularly resented this arrangement; in their countries, Egyptians typically did menial jobs, not senior management.

Saif al-`Adl’s approach to these complaints, characteristically, was uncompromising; in essence, he told the Saudis to get over it. Bin Ladin had said that in order to be fully trusted in the organization, members should make Hijra—move their families and homes to Afghanistan the way the Prophet Mohammed had moved from Mecca to Medina. The way al-`Adl saw it, these Saudis did jihad only for “vacation,” returning to their comfortable lives whenever the mood struck them, whereas Egyptians, barred from returning home, were in Afghanistan permanently. So, what did they expect?65

Abu Muhammad, equally true to form, chose a more nuanced tack, recognizing the value of fighters from the Gulf. One focal point of the tensions was the guesthouse in Kabul, a key part of al-Qa`ida’s recruitment pipeline and an institution of which Abu Muhammad, as commander in Kabul, was now in charge. To show that Peninsular Arabs could indeed advance in the organization if they stayed around, Abu Muhammad chose a Yemeni born in Saudi Arabia, Abu Jandal, to serve as emir of the guesthouse.66

Abu Muhammad soon became a mentor to Abu Jandal, 10 years his junior. Later, in interrogations with this author and in his 2010 memoirs, Jandal painted a complex portrait of Abu Muhammad’s personality around this time. He was “extremely religious,” Jandal said, and must have studied Islamic theology, for he could quote the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) at will.67 Despite his carelessness about killing passersby in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Abu Muhammad was, Jandal said, “against targeting civilians” and “the one who seemed most touched” by civilian deaths among al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership.68 Recall that it was also during this same period that Abu Muhammad found the Jordanian spy in Kabul and prevented Saif al-`Adl from lynching him.69

The Flight to Iran
Like every other member of the shura council who did not come with al-Zawahiri from EIJ, Abu Muhammad counseled bin Ladin against the “planes operation.”70 “It was like all of al-Qaeda’s history,” said Mustafa Hamid, a revered “Arab Afghan” who was close to the al-Qa`ida leadership. “They disagreed but they would not go against Abu Abdullah [i.e., bin Ladin].”71 So the 9/11 attacks went ahead, and as the old guard had predicted, the United States quickly retaliated by invading Afghanistan. Kabul, Abu Muhammad’s old command, fell almost without a fight, all but a handful of its Taliban and al-Qa`ida defenders having fled.

In Kandahar, things were different. Saif al-`Adl was placed in command not just of al-Qa`ida’s fighters but of all “Arab Afghan” forces.72 In preparation for the battle, al-`Adl sent a truck convoy west, carrying the wives and children of high-ranking al-Qa`ida members to the relative safety of a country that would reliably not assist the Americans, Iran.73 Kandahar fell under heavy bombardment from U.S. warplanes. Afterward, al-`Adl and a group of other surviving commanders fled eastward to a safe house in Bermel, close to the Pakistani border, where Abu Muhammad had also taken refuge.74 There, they discussed their next moves. Traditionally, the Taliban and the Arab Afghans had found shelter in the lightly governed north of Pakistan, but following the horror of 9/11, the Musharraf regime had thrown in its lot with the United States (albeit Musharraf himself continued to castigate the United States in public). This supposed “betrayal” of the Taliban and al-Qa`ida preoccupied bin Ladin during the U.S. invasion, and he furiously ranted to his underlings about it.75

For the commanders huddled in their safe house in Bermel, the choice was stark: keep fighting and risk death in Afghanistan or flee across the border and risk capture in Pakistan. Saif al-`Adl chose the latter, but Abu Muhammad chose the former.76 Nor did he simply stay on the battlefield locally; he also carried on plotting attacks against the United States. When this author interrogated Abu Zubaydah, a veteran of the Battle of Kandahar, in 2002, Zubaydah identified Abu Muhammad as a commander whom bin Ladin “has working on plots.” Specifically, Abu Muhammad was hatching a plan to attack a U.S. military base—an attack that was thwarted because of information extracted from Abu Zubaydah during the non-coercive phase of his interrogation.77

In the face of overwhelming U.S. power, however, even Abu Muhammad had to admit defeat and take steps toward self-preservation. Like many al-Qa`ida members, Abu Muhammad and his family sought refuge in Iran. Admittedly, al-Qa`ida’s Sunni extremists were not happy to be hiding out in the belly of a Shi`a theocracy. One, a veteran of the East Africa plot who was arrested around the same time as Abu Muhammad, called Iran a “rejectionist Persian country” populated by “people whose mannerisms resemble those of the Jews and the hypocrites” where true Islam seems “out of place.”78 But with the U.S.-led crackdown in full effect across the region, they had little choice.

For some months, Abu Muhammad and his family lived in a safe house operated by sympathetic Sunnis in the city of Shiraz in the south of the country.79 While there, he adopted the slightly unconvincing alias Daoud Shirazi—“David from Shiraz”—although presumably any local would have been able to tell right away that the Egyptian was not from anywhere near Shiraz.80

The Iranian authorities were aware of al-Qa`ida’s presence in the city and kept them under covert surveillance. Eventually, however, the militants discovered that they were being watched and Iranian security was forced to make arrests to avoid losing track of them altogether.81 (To add to the urgency, around the same time a U.S. agency recorded Saif al-`Adl on a phone call attempting to coordinate the purchase of an alleged nuclear weapon, prompting a rare instance of the United States sharing intelligence with Iran.82) On April 23, 2003, Abu Muhammad was arrested, together with Saif al-`Adl, Abu al-Khair al-Masri, and a host of other al-Qa`ida figures.83

Iran swiftly moved to deport the foot-soldiers it captured in these raids, but it retained custody of the more senior figures, including Abu Muhammad.84 It divided them by seniority into three tiers, to be kept separately; naturally, Abu Muhammad and al-`Adl were in the top tier. For the first 20 months, the high-value prisoners were kept in the cells of an intelligence building in Tehran, but they were never interrogated—perhaps evidence that Iran wanted to detain them not for intelligence but as bargaining chips in an effort to control the potential threat from al-Qa`ida.85

Around the beginning of 2005, Abu Muhammad was reunited with his family at a detention facility on a base in Tehran apparently used for training Hezbollah militants.86 They were allowed to communicate with each other, but not with the outside world, although back channels seem to have existed by which various manifestos, memoirs, and other messages could be smuggled out for publication.87

Tellingly, in correspondence between bin Ladin and senior al-Qa`ida members based in northern Pakistan, those detained in Iran were referred to as “al-Zayyat and his partners” or “the al-Zayyat brothers”—al-Zayyat being an alias of Abu Muhammad (typically used to distinguish him from another “Abu Muhammad,” Ayman al-Zawahiri).88 This nomenclature would seem to indicate that al-Qa`ida Central took for granted that Abu Muhammad was the leader of the group, ahead of other detainees like Saif al-`Adl and Abu al-Khair.

Behind bars and barbed-wire fences, life assumed a slower pace, and one day became practically indistinguishable from the next—a familiar experience for those detained anywhere, but a far cry from the frenetic pace of frontline jihad. Every few years, the detainees would be moved to a different facility, always on a base in Tehran or its suburbs.89 Over time, they were allowed more contact with the outside, albeit strictly supervised by Iranian officials. Their living conditions also gradually improved until, around seven years after their initial arrest, they were moved to freshly refurbished houses lining something resembling a suburban cul-de-sac, complete with dedicated yards, a small mosque, and a playground for the children.90

This relative tranquility did not please some of the jihadis, who by nature craved the excitement of an active warzone.91 On March 5, 2010, the detainees rioted and had to be pacified by masked security forces who stormed the compound.92 The senior leaders, presumably including Abu Muhammad, were rounded up, jailed for a time, and tortured.93

Around the fall of 2011, Abu Muhammad and the other detainees were offered their freedom if they would return to their home countries. It is not clear why the Iranian authorities made this offer. Partly, no doubt, they were interested in ridding themselves of some troublesome prisoners. Perhaps with a pro-Tehran regime in place in Baghdad, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq nearing completion, and Assad’s rule not yet seriously threatened in Syria, they felt that al-Qa`ida was not as relevant in the region as it once was.

In any event, some senior detainees took the deal, but the three senior Egyptians—Abu Muhammad, Saif al-`Adl, and Abu al-Khair—all refused.94 As usual for Abu Muhammad, there was presumably a strong logic behind this decision: the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak might have been toppled, but the country’s security services would still be on the lookout for any returning al-Qa`ida members, and their retribution would likely be swift and terrible. For Abu Muhammad, the better option was to remain in custody in Iran where he could be with his family and enjoy a certain measure of freedom to communicate with jihadis outside.

Alongside the commanders and ideologues, a number of family members of Usama bin Ladin were detained in Iran, including one of the al-Qa`ida leader’s favorite sons, Hamza, who was kept in the same compound as Abu Muhammad.95 Hamza’s mother, Khairia Sabar, herself an educated woman who had lectured on child psychology at universities in Saudi Arabia, recognized the importance of good schooling and evidently worried that her son was not receiving it. So she arranged for Hamza to be homeschooled by a handful of the senior men in the compound. In an audio message recorded years later, following his own release, Hamza praises his mentors in captivity—“my sheikhs through whose hands I was educated”—a short list that includes Abu Muhammad.96 Between them, these men educated Hamza in Qur’anic study, the sharia, and the Hadith.97

But Abu Muhammad became more than a mentor. Around 2005, Hamza married Abu Muhammad’s daughter Miriam in a ceremony at the compound where they were detained together. Footage of the event was seized from the Abbottabad compound in 2011 and released by the CIA in early 2018.c

The marriage of Hamza bin Ladin was not the only dynastic connection Abu Muhammad forged in captivity. At some point, another of his daughters married a son of Abu al-Khair, the commander who was first in line to succeed al-Zawahiri as emir until his death in a drone strike in Syria in 2017.98 These blood ties would be significant in any context, but in an organization as wedded to tradition as al-Qa`ida, they are doubly so.

Abu Muhammad’s “Release”
Around 2007, al-Qa`ida opened a back-channel with the Iranian authorities through a series of go-betweens. The purpose was to negotiate the status of the detainees, still referred to internally as “al-Zayyat [i.e., Abu Muhammad] and his brothers.”99 Within the organization, there was disagreement on how to handle the talks. The leadership in northern Pakistan wanted to “fight fire with fire … to increase the pressure against the oppressors for the sake of al-Zayyat and his brothers,” by threatening attacks against Iranian targets.100 But bin Ladin, characteristically, counseled caution, warning his underlings to “be patient” and “not start anything.” This is not surprising given that many of the detainees were bin Ladin’s own family members.

Negotiations continued for a number of years.101 In early 2011, a few weeks before bin Ladin’s death, Khairia Sabar, her son Hamza, and a number of other bin Ladin family members were released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan.102 Abu Muhammad and most of the other leaders remained in custody. (Saif al-`Adl was briefly released, but later returned to Iran for reasons that are not clear, perhaps because his wife and children stayed behind.103)

In July 2013, al-Qa`ida once again bolstered its position by kidnapping another Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, in Yemen, home of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).104 In 2015, another prisoner swap was agreed, and in September of that year, five al-Qa`ida leaders were released.105 Three of them, Abu al-Khair, Sari Shihab, and Khalid al-Aruri, made their way to Syria. Abu al-Khair and Sari Shihab were killed there in 2017 and 2019, respectively, while al-Aruri is still active, as will be outlined later.106

Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad remained in Iran.107 In a letter posted to a jihadi social media channel in 2017, al-Aruri addressed their status. After the prisoner exchange, he says, they “got out of prison. So the two are not detained as is understood and implied from this word, but they are prohibited from travelling until God can grant them an exit, for they move about and live their ordinary life except for permission to travel. [They are not] in prison or incommunicado or deprived of will or the like.”108

This account begs the question: How involved are Saif and Abu Muhammad in the day-to-day running of al-Qa`ida? In March 2013, Sulayman Abu Ghayth, an al-Qa`ida operative imprisoned with them in Iran and now serving a life sentence in the United States,109 told the FBI that the two Egyptians are “beaten men … primarily concerned with the day-to-day activities / welfare of their families in Iran … they have no larger intentions … to continue the jihad if / when they are released.”110 This assessment may have represented an attempt to direct attention away from these two revered figures. At any rate, whatever their precise status within Iran, Saif and Abu Muhammad have not just “continue[d] the jihad;” they have positioned themselves as its elder statesmen.

Evidence of this came in relation to a dispute between al-Qa`ida and its Syrian affiliate. In July 2016, the al-Nusra Front proposed a rebranding exercise to dissociate itself from al-Qa`ida Central, in the hopes of attracting support from secular and international elements opposed to the Assad regime.111 According to the letter uploaded by Khalid al-Aruri (the same one mentioned earlier), al-Aruri and Abu al-Khair, al-Zawahiri’s senior representatives in the Levant, tentatively authorized the rebranding but submitted it for approval “on the same night” to Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad.112 The two Egyptians rejected the rebranding and transmitted it onward to al-Zawahiri for a final decision.113 Abu al-Khair and Khalid al-Aruri then called a halt while al-Zawahiri considered the matter. (He, too, would eventually reject the rebranding, on the basis that it would not fool anybody and would just confuse potential recruits.114)

Of this turn of events, several aspects are interesting.

Firstly, the rebranding plan was reportedly submitted to Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad “on the same night” it was decided upon, suggesting that al-Qa`ida commanders in Syria have been and likely continue to be in direct phone or online communication with their colleagues in Iran.

Secondly, opposition from al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad was enough to prompt al-Aruri and Abu al-Khair to suspend their approval of the project. This indicates the standing that al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad likely still enjoy within the organization as managers and decision-makers.

Thirdly, al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad were able to transmit the plan (together, presumably, with an indication of their opposition to it) to al-Zawahiri, a detail that shows they are in contact with the overall emir, possibly through a courier network similar to the one bin Ladin was using in the months before his death.

Fourthly, al-Aruri’s letter claims that al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad are the decision-makers not only for Syria but worldwide: “And the leadership reads, hears and tracks all the fields, not just the field of al-Sham [the Levant].”115 Evidence of their part in decisions outside Syria is currently lacking, but given their influence within al-Qa`ida throughout its existence, al-Aruri’s assessment could well be correct.

Finally, while it might be supposed that the Egyptians’ presence in Iran would complicate their ability to make decisions for al-Qa`ida as a whole, that does not seem to have been the case, at least on this occasion. This suggests that Abu Muhammad, if and when he should succeed, would not face significant obstacles in running the organization from Iran (provided, it may safely be presumed, that he does not move to attack Iranian interests directly). That is not to say that the government of Iran would necessarily be content to allow the leader of al-Qa`ida—as opposed to its number two—to operate from Iranian soil. Such an arrangement might, indeed, also cause suspicion among jihadis and within the al-Qa`ida membership itself. Moreover, Iran has previously attempted to exert influence over al-Qa`ida’s actions by holding family members of both bin Ladin and other senior commanders based elsewhere. The more likely outcome, should Abu Muhammad succeed to the leadership, is that he would depart from Iran and be forced to leave family members behind as collateral.

In June 2018, the United Nations team responsible for monitoring sanctions seemed to confirm the essentials of this account in a report to the Security Council based on member state intelligence:

Al-Qaida leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with Aiman al-Zawahiri and projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously. They have influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani [leader of the al-Nusra Front] and causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al-Qaida-aligned groups in Idlib … Member States report that Aiman al-Zawahiri, partly through the agency of senior Al-Qaida leadership figures based in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Abu Muhammad Al-Masri and Sayf Al-Adl (QDi.001), has been able to exert influence on the situation in north-western Syrian Arab Republic.116

Less than a month after the Security Council made this report public, the U.S. State Department doubled the bounty for information on Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad from $5 million to $10 million.117 The State Department did not offer an explanation for this decision, but one may safely conclude that the U.S. government still considers Abu Muhammad a dangerous leader within al-Qa`ida.

And such an assessment would seem to be correct. Abu Muhammad al-Masri is experienced, highly regarded, well connected, able to make and transmit decisions for the organization as a whole, and—given his location—immune from the drone strikes that have ended the careers of many other senior commanders. Moreover, as a close associate of bin Ladin since the founding of al-Qa`ida, he is better placed than al-Zawahiri could ever be to reunite al-Qa`ida with its wayward progeny, the Islamic State.

One of the many younger al-Qa`ida members mentored by Abu Muhammad was Abu Jandal, whom Abu Muhammad recommended for the post of emir of the guesthouse in Kabul, one of the principal pipelines to membership in the organization. During his 2001 interrogation by this author, Jandal recounted a conversation with his mentor in which Abu Jandal said he wanted to leave al-Qa`ida for a quieter life back home in Yemen. Abu Muhammad told him, “If you think by leaving Afghanistan [the Americans] will leave you alone, you are wrong. This is a war. Either we will win or die. There is no place for turning back.”118

“Look at me now,” Abu Jandal later told the author. “I left al-Qa`ida, but I’m in prison. Abu Muhammad was right.”119

In its June 2018 report, cited earlier, the U.N. sanctions monitoring team summed up the long-term threat from al-Qa`ida as follows:

Al-Qaida’s leadership demonstrates strategic patience and its regional affiliates exercise good tactical judgment, embedding themselves in local issues and becoming players. While there is as yet little evidence of a re-emerging direct global threat from Al-Qaida, improved leadership and enhanced communication will probably increase the threat over time, as will any rise in the tendency, already visible in some regions, of ISIL supporters to join Al-Qaida.120

With his long history in the jihadi movement, Abu Muhammad al-Masri could rightly be seen as the embodiment of this kind of “strategic patience”—a quality that has seen al-Qa`ida cheat death several times over the 30 years of its existence.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, for his part, has never been popular among the al-Qa`ida rank-and-file, primarily because, as leader of EIJ until 2001, he is seen as an interloper even to this day. Having been with bin Ladin since before al-Qa`ida was even founded, Abu Muhammad al-Masri cannot be accused of similar carpet-bagging. He is well connected within the organization through ties of loyalty and family, and as a commander he has shown himself to be both tough and shrewd. Moreover, as the mastermind of the East Africa attacks and a prominent terrorist planner during the peak of al-Qa`ida’s war against the United States, it would not be surprising to see him turn the organization’s focus back toward attacking the West. Finally, as has been noted, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may represent the best opportunity yet to restore al-Qa`ida’s primacy among jihadis—and potentially to bring disappointed former Islamic State members back under the al-Qa`ida umbrella.

Throughout its existence, whenever al-Qa`ida has evolved, Abu Muhammad al-Masri has been at the forefront of the change. With al-Zawahiri reported to have a potentially serious heart complaint,121 the group may be on the verge of only the second transfer of leadership in its history. Barring some unforeseen mishap, there can be little doubt that Abu Muhammad will be at the center of the next evolution.     CTC

Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group. As an FBI special agent, he served on the frontline against al-Qa`ida and became known as a top counterterrorism operative and interrogator. His most recent book, Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, was published in 2017. Follow @Ali_H_Soufan

Substantive Notes
[a] It is possible that al-Hashimi changed his name upon taking charge and may, in fact, be a better-known figure than he appears.

[b] It should be noted that the partnership between Hezbollah and al-Qa`ida would prove short-lived, largely because al-Qa`ida’s rank-and-file (though apparently not their commanders) balked at the idea of working with Shi`a Muslims. See Ali Soufan, Anatomy of Terror (New York: Norton, 2017), p. 58.

[c] Footage of the wedding can be viewed at Huda al-Saleh, “New footage shows Hamza bin Laden at his wedding in Iran,” Al Arabiya English, January 19, 2018. See also “Bin Laden files: CIA releases video of son Hamza’s wedding,” BBC News, November 2, 2017. 

[1] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[2] Except where otherwise cited, information in this section is drawn from the author’s own 2001 interrogations of Abu Jandal (real name: Nasser al-Bahri); from Ali Soufan, Anatomy of Terror (New York: Norton, 2017), pp. 74-75; and from Nasser al-Bahri, Guarding bin Laden: My life in al-Qaeda (London: Thin Man Press, 2013), Kindle ed., loc. 1833ff.

[3] See “Interrogation of a Jordanian National,” Harmony Program, document number AFGP-2002-800775.

[4] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019); “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, June 27, 2019, pp. 3, 6.

[5] Ali Soufan, The Black Banners (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 280.

[6] Ibid., p. 479.

[7] Ibid., p. 345.

[8] “Letter to Shaykh Mahmud 26 September 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pp. 3-4.

[9] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reach a new accord,” FDD’s Long War Journal, February 15, 2019.

[10] Ibid.

[11] A process analyzed in Ali Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to Al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting,” CTC Sentinel 10:8 (2017): pp. 1-7.

[12] Thomas Joscelyn, “Zawahiri’s deputy sought to ‘unify’ Syrian rebels,” FDD’s Long War Journal, March 3, 2017.

[13] Cole Bunzel, “Caliph Incognito: The Ridicule of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi,” Jihadica, November 14, 2019.

[14] “Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah,” U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice.

[15] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, p. 1,653 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[16] Minutes of a meeting held in August 1988, translated and reprinted in J.M. Berger ed., Beatings and Bureaucracy: The Founding Memos of al-Qaeda (Intelwire Press, 2012), Kindle ed., loc. 186.

[17] Ibid., Kindle ed., loc. 204.

[18] Ibid., Kindle ed., loc. 124.

[19] Phil Hirschkorn, “Members Only: Al Qaeda’s Charter List Revealed After 13 Years in US Hands,” Just Security, January 29, 2015.

[20] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, pp. 56–57.

[21] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 2, pp. 288-289 (testimony of Jamal al-Fadl).

[22] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, p. 292.

[23] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 2, pp. 288-289 (testimony of Jamal al-Fadl).

[24] The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 61.

[25] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 2, pp. 289-291 (testimony of Jamal al-Fadl).

[26] The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 59.

[27] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, p. 1,653 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[28] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 345.

[29] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, pp. 60-61.

[30] “Interview: Osama bin Laden,” ABC News, May 1998.

[31] Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2015), p. 190; Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro, and Vahid Brown, Al-Qa’ida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007).

[32] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, pp. 65-66.

[33] Ibid., pp. 65-67.

[34] Hamid and Farrall, p. 224.

[35] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 63.

[36] Ibid., p. 65.

[37] Ibid., p. 63.

[38] Ibid., p. 65.

[39] The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 68.

[40] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 14, p. 2,021.

[41] Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 54, 65.

[42] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 270.

[43] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, p. 1,670 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[44] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 14, p. 2,021.

[45] Author interrogations, Salim Hamdan (June–July 2002) and Abu Jandal (September–October 2001).

[46] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 38, p. 5,427.

[47] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, p. 1,681 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[48] Author interrogation, Salim Hamdan.

[49] Author interrogation, Salim Hamdan; United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, pp. 1,681-1,684.

[50] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 90.

[51] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 14, p. 2,020.

[52] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 88.

[53] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 14, pp. 2,014–2,015.

[54] The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 70.

[55] United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., trial transcript, day 12, pp. 1,690–1,691 (testimony of Special Agent John Anticev).

[56] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, pp. 75-77; Steven Lee Myers, “U.S. FURY ON 2 CONTINENTS: THE WEAPONS; Dozens of Ship-Launched Cruise Missiles Strike at Same Moment, 2,500 Miles Apart,” New York Times, August 21, 1998.

[57] The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 149.

[58] Al-Bahri, Kindle ed., loc. 1,241.

[59] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 328.

[60] Al-Bahri, Kindle ed., loc. 1,407.

[61] Ibid., Kindle ed., loc. 1,241; Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 79-80; Hamid and Farrall, p. 243.

[62] Soufan, The Black Banners, p. 456.

[63] “Former al-Qaeda mufti: I condemn ISIL attacks,” Al Jazeera, November 21, 2015.

[64] Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 150-151.

[65] Ibid., p. 151.

[66] Ibid., p. 332.

[67] Author interrogations, Abu Jandal, 2001; al-Bahri, Kindle ed., loc. 1,407.

[68] Al-Bahri, Kindle ed., loc. 2,944.

[69] The information in this paragraph is drawn from al-Bahri, Kindle ed., loc. 1,845.

[70] Hamid and Farrall, pp. 280-281.

[71] Ibid., p. 281.

[72] Ibid., pp. 285-286.

[73] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, p. 94.

[74] Hamid and Farrall, p. 285; Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 346-347.

[75] Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 384–385. (Note: The relevant passage is redacted in the original edition of the book. But the redactions have now been lifted, and an unredacted edition is forthcoming from Norton.)

[76] Ibid., pp. 346-347.

[77] Ibid., pp. 385, 389. (Note: The relevant passage is redacted in the original edition of the book. But the redactions have now been lifted, and an unredacted edition is forthcoming from Norton.)

[78] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, p. 1. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[79] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 3, 2013, pp. 8, 11.

[80] Ibid., p. 11.

[81] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” p. 2. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[82] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, p. 102.

[83] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 8.

[84] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, p. 277.

[85] Ibid., pp. 278-279.

[86] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” pp. 3-4. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[87] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” pp. 1-2, 14-15.

[88] For example, “Letter to Shaykh Azmaray dtd 4 February 2008,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pp. 1-2 and “Letter to Shaykh Azmarai,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, p. 2. (Documents seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[89] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” pp. 3-4. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[90] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” pp. 12, 20.

[91] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” p. 4. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[92] Ibid., p. 4. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[93] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 12.

[94] Ibid., p. 15.

[95] “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” p. 2. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[96] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Osama bin Laden’s son praises al Qaeda’s branches in new message,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 17, 2015. For more on Hamza bin Ladin, see Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to Al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting.”

[97] “Letter from Hamzah to father dtd July 2009,” Director of National Intelligence, p. 3.

[98] “Letter dtd 5 April 2011,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[99] “Letter to Shaykh Azmaray dtd 4 February 2008.”

[100] “Letter to Shaykh Azmarai,” p. 2. (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[101] “Letter to Shaykh Azmarai.” (Document seized from the Abbottabad compound.)

[102] Dina Temple-Raston, “Key Al-Qaida Leader Owes Rise To Unlikely Ally: Iran,” NPR, June 1, 2011.

[103] Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, p. 281.

[104] “Iranian ‘operation’ in Yemen frees kidnapped diplomat,” BBC, March 5, 2015.

[105] Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015; “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015,” U.S. Department of State, chapter 6.

[106] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda veteran reportedly killed in Idlib,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 22, 2019.

[107] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 13, 2018.

[108] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (III),” Pundicity, December 10, 2017.

[109] Benjamin Weiser, “Abu Ghaith, a Bin Laden Adviser, Is Sentenced to Life in Prison,” New York Times, September 23, 2014.

[110] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 15.

[111] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 28, 2016.

[112] Al-Tamimi.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Charles Lister, “How al-Qa`ida Lost Control of its Syrian Affiliate: The Inside Story,” CTC Sentinel 11:2 (2018).

[115] Al-Tamimi.

[116] “Twenty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, June 27, 2018, paragraphs 10, 18-19.

[117] Rebecca Kheel, “US doubles reward for info on al Qaeda leaders in 1998 embassy attacks,” Hill, August 8, 2018.

[118] Soufan, The Black Banners, pp. 313, 332.

[119] Author interrogation, Abu Jandal, 2001.

[120] “Twenty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” paragraph 11.

[121] Paul Cruickshank, “Intel indicates al Qaeda leader has potentially serious ‘heart complaint’, official says,” CNN, August 1, 2019; “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” pp. 3, 6.

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