One key question surrounding the assassination of senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah still remains: Why was the incident divulged only now?
There’s no doubt that the New York Times story was intentionally leaked. The report is replete with accurate details, meant to negate Iran’s and Al-Qaeda’s denials in advance. Whoever relayed the information wanted not only to shed light on an assassination carried out in the shadows but to send a message that would reverberate throughout the entire Middle East.
This message was meant for numerous entities. For Al-Qaeda, of course, which lost yet another senior leader, and on the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which he helped plan. It was meant for Iran, which was exposed as harboring a leader of an organization that is supposed to be its bitter ideological and religious enemy. And it also sent the message to all other extremist actors in the region that the United States and Israel, regardless of their coronavirus and domestic political problems, will continue working together in the war on terror.
According to foreign reports, this level of cooperation between the two countries is not unusual and has been evidenced many times in the past. The relationship between the Mossad and IDF Military Intelligence Directorate and their American counterparts is a deep one. It entails the sharing of intelligence information, and for the past 15 years, operational intelligence as well. Two of the most prominent examples are thought to have been “Operation Olympic Games,” in which the Stuxnet computer worm disrupted Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts for many months, and the assassination of former Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008.
This type of cooperation, it appears, can be attributed to Abdullah’s case as well. It seems the Americans provided the intelligence and the Mossad carried out the operation, possibly indicating the Americans lack sufficient operational infrastructure in Iran. Even the U.S. assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January was carried out in Iraq.
The Mossad, on the other hand, has proven over the past decade (based on foreign reports) to possess impressive operational capabilities on Iranian soil—from the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists to the explosion that rocked the centrifuge facility in Natanz last June. In all these cases, the Mossad was said to have employed the services of others. This is a customary mode of operation in the world of espionage, which the Mossad likely practices as well in order to protect its agents as much as possible.
Yet still, the Mossad’s involvement in Abdullah’s assassination shouldn’t be seen as a given. While Abdullah—whose alias was Abu Mohammed al-Masri—did plan attacks against Israeli targets in Kenya in 2002, Israel’s declared policy is that assassinations are only a means for preventing future attacks, not exacting vengeance. Although Israeli officials have claimed Abdullah was busy planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets across the globe, it isn’t very likely considering the fact that Al-Qaeda—which for years now has struggled to carry out high-profile attacks—is focusing its efforts on fighting the Americans and moderate Sunni regimes in the region, not Israel.
It’s more reasonable to assume that Israel lent a hand to its most important ally (despite concerns that doing so would make it a target of Al-Qaeda). There is clear operational value in this, but also considerable deterrence value. Toward Al-Qaeda, obviously, but mainly toward Iran, which understands it is again penetrated and is under the crosshairs of the Israelis and Americans. This message should not be underestimated: Iran is mulling its nuclear options and must know this comes with zero tolerance.
Regardless, Iran isn’t likely to alter course. The clear takeaway is that the Middle East is largely motivated by interests, rather than ideology. Iran, which is fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, was hosting one of the organization’s most senior figures because he served its interest by fighting the Americans in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda, too, won’t alter course. Al-Masri is not the organization’s first senior member to be assassinated, and won’t be the last. In recent years, his symbolic importance outweighed his operational importance, and he belonged to the gradually vanishing founding generation. A new and younger operational leadership has sprouted in its place, operating under the patronage of the organization’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose health and whereabouts are in question. It’s safe to assume that officials in Washington (and perhaps in Jerusalem as well) would be glad to add his name to al-Masri’s as soon as possible.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.