What Impact Will the Death of al-Masri Have on al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah – who went by the name Abu Muhammad al-Masri (“the Egyptian”), was allegedly gunned down in Tehran on August 7 by Israeli agents operating on behalf of US officials, according to the Daily Mail. 

Al-Masri’s Record of Terror

Twenty-two years ago, al-Masri masterminded devastating attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured thousands more.

He also allegedly ordered an attack in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002 that murdered 13 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.

Yet as of Friday, he was still listed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list with a $10 million bounty on his head.

The Secret Death of al-Qaeda’s Second-in-Command

It remains unclear what precise role the US may have played in al-Masri’s death but they are known to have been tracking his movements for years.

The death of al-Qaeda’s number two has remained a secret until now.

Ordering the assassination of senior al-Qaeda leaders certainly has an impact on the terrorist group’s ability to initiate attacks against Western targets. Since the death of leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda has been overshadowed by the Islamic State (ISIS), with the latter taking advantage of the former’s demise by making huge gains in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

ISIS also succeeded in capturing large swathes of Iraq and Syria, something that al-Qaeda was never able to do.

Earlier this year, the US confirmed the death of al-Qaeda’s affiliate leader in Yemen, Qassim al-Rimi. Assassinating al-Rimi – who served as the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – also hampered the organization’s ability to orchestrate operations against the West, American and European counter-terrorist experts told the New York Times.

Al-Qaeda is Still a Threat to America

However, considering al-Qaeda remains an active terrorist group to this day, this only proves that assassinating these groups’ leaders only has a short-term impact. As Max Fisher of the New York Times suggests, terrorist organizations depend upon a steady stream of recruits and a pool of potential leaders. Support among civilians in areas in which the groups primarily operate also makes them more stable, by expanding support networks and helping them to safely retrench when necessary.

South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center Michael Kugelman told DW in 2016 that it is too early to write off al-Qaeda. He added that the group remains extremely relevant in South Asia, despite claims from the U.S. Government that it has largely disappeared from the region. There is no solid evidence that al-Qaeda has become an almost obsolete terrorist group.

Al-Masri’s Changes Nothing for al-Qaeda

In February, al-Qaeda claimed in an audio recording made before al-Rimi’s death that it had ordered a Saudi military officer to carry out the shooting at an American military base in Florida in December 2019 that killed eight sailors and wounded eight people. Considering there was sufficient evidence that the gunman, Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, had spoken to al-Qaeda officials before the incident, many experts concluded that Alshamrani was indeed acting on behalf of the organization.

The US has deployed the strategy of killing terrorist leaders in Syria, Somalia, Pakistan’s tribal regions and Yemen. They more than likely pursue this option because it is cheap, low risk and allows American leaders to credibly say that they are doing something about terrorism. Bin Laden’s assassination provided Barack Obama with a significant boost in May 2011, with 56 percent of Americans approving of the job he was doing at that time.

Until al-Qaeda’s support networks drastically decrease in size, the group will continue to remain a considerable threat to the US. Assassinating these organizations’ senior leaders definitely sets them back, but such moves are not enough to severely weaken terrorist groups in the long-term. The US is facing a lose-lose situation, no matter how hard it tries to defeat terrorism.

The Pentagon needs to explore alternative strategies.