CAIRO, Egypt – Al-Qaida confirmed Sunday the death of a top commander accused of training the suicide bombers who killed 17 American sailors on the USS Cole eight years ago.
Abu Khabab al-Masri, who had a $5 million bounty on his head from the United States, is believed to have been killed in an airstrike apparently launched by the U.S. in Pakistan last week.
An al-Qaida statement posted on the Internet said al-Masri and three other top figures were killed and warned of revenge. It did not specify when, where or how they died, but said some of their children also were killed.
Pakistani authorities have said they believe al-Masri was among six people killed in an airstrike July 28 on a compound in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region near the Afghan border.
The U.S. military has not confirmed it was behind the missile strike. But similar U.S. attacks are periodically launched on militant targets in the tribal border region.
Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding in the rugged and lawless region along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The U.S. Justice Department has accused al-Masri, an Egyptian militant whose real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, of training terrorists to use poisons and explosives.
He also is believed to have helped run al-Qaida’s Darunta training camp in eastern Afghanistan until the camp was abandoned during the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country. There he is thought to have conducted experiments in chemical and biological weapons, testing materials on dogs.
The al-Qaida statement called al-Masri and the other three slain commanders “a group of heroes” and warned of retaliation.
“We tell the enemies of God that God has saved those who will be even more painful for you,” it said. “As Abu Khabab has gone, he left behind, with God’s grace, a generation of faithful students who will make you suffer the worst torture and avenge him and his brothers.”
Experts downplayed the significance of al-Masri’s death.
“A big name does not mean a big impact on the ground,” said Mustafa Alani, director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “The bottom line is that those people are replaceable. The organization has developed in such a way that it can survive and fill in any gap, even if Osama bin Laden was to die.”
Dia’a Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on terrorism and Islamic movements, said al-Masri’s death could hurt morale among al-Qaida’s followers, but it wasn’t a huge loss for the terror group, especially in Afghanistan.
“Al-Qaida might be facing setbacks in Iraq, but not in Afghanistan … and any loss will appear (to its fighters) as a triumph against the enemy, not a defeat,” Rashwan said.