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Senior al-Qaida operative is dead, U.S. says

Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy

WASHINGTON – A senior al-Qaida operative involved in the 2005 London subway and bus bombings and a 2006 plot to blow up commercial airliners over the Atlantic Ocean has died in Pakistan’s tribal region, U.S. counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

The militant, an Egyptian who used the nom de guerre Abu Ubaida al-Masri, succumbed to hepatitis, they said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Al-Masri’s death undercuts Pakistan’s rejection of U.S. claims that al-Qaida’s leadership has been directing terrorist plots from inside the border region’s safe havens of soaring mountains and rugged valleys.

Al-Masri reportedly escaped two attempts to kill him in the region. The first was a January 2006 missile strike by unmanned U.S. aircraft in the village of Damadola. Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaida’s No. 2, was also believed in the village at the time.

Eighteen people, including four al-Qaida operatives and women and children, died, but neither al-Masri nor al-Zawahri was there.

In the second failed attempt, Pakistani helicopters attacked a religious school in Damadola in October 2006, killing more than 80 people, but not al-Masri.

One U.S. counterterrorism official said al-Masri helped recruit, train and direct the British Muslims who staged suicide bombings of subway trains and a bus in London in July 2005 that killed 52 commuters.

He played a similar role, the U.S. counterterrorism official said, in a 2006 plot by a group of British Muslims to blow up at least seven passenger jets over the Atlantic Ocean as they flew from London to the United States and Canada.

The plot, which was broken up after British authorities penetrated the group, allegedly involved the smuggling of liquid explosives in plastic drink bottles onto the aircraft.

Eight defendants went on trial in London in the case last week.

Al-Masri became a senior al-Qaida operative for international terrorist operations after fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya and then serving as a military instructor in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S. intervention, the Los Angles Times reported.

He then served as al-Qaida’s senior commander in eastern Afghanistan, said the U.S. counterterrorism official.

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