CAIRO – A U.S. airstrike in Syria earlier this week killed the deputy leader of al-Qaida, known as Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, the group confirmed on Thursday. The death brings a significant blow to the terror network and points to the central role Syria has taken in its operations.
Al-Masri, a veteran Egyptian militant, was the deputy of al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and the organization's senior figure in Syria. He coordinated al-Qaida's work with other militant groups and played a direct role in developing external plots, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The first report of his death came from the SITE Intelligence Group, which said al-Masri — the nom de guerre of Egyptian militant Abdullah Mohammed Abdulrahman — may have been killed in a strike on Sunday on a vehicle in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. It cited photos reports circulating on jihadi social media accounts. Images posted online showed the vehicle with part of the roof blown open.
On Thursday, al-Qaida's branches in Yemen and North Africa put out a joint statement said al-Masri had been killed in a "Crusader strike" in Syria, calling it "another in the crimes of America and its Crusader alliance." It praised him as a hero and "wise leader" and expressed its condolences to al-Zawahri, who became the top leader of al-Qaida when Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011.
The CIA declined to comment on reports of al-Masri's death.
Al-Zawahri is believed to be based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, but many of the group's senior figures are believed to have moved to Syria, taking advantage of the country's civil war to establish a presence — though many of them have subsequently been killed in U.S. drone strikes the past year. An al-Qaida-linked group, Fatah al-Sham, is one of the strongest forces among the rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Associated Press writer Deb Reichmann in Washington contributed to this report.