In 1998, the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania were bombed. In the attacks, 224 people died and hundreds were wounded. The attacks were attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-highest member Abu Muhammad al-Masri. Now, intelligence officials have confirmed that al-Masri was killed in Iran three months ago.

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down on Tehran’s streets by two assassins on a motorcycle on August 7, the anniversary of the embassy attacks. He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden.

Five shots were fired from a pistol fitted with a silencer. Four bullets entered his car through the driver’s side and a fifth hit a nearby vehicle. At the time, Iran’s official news media had identified the victims as Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor, and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam. 

Officials said that Israeli agents shot Abu Muhammad al-Masri at the behest of the U.S. But no one — Iran, al-Qaeda, the U.S., or Israel — has publicly acknowledged the killing.

It is unclear what role, if any, was played by the United States, which had been tracking the movements of al-Masri and other al-Qaeda operatives in Iran for years. 

Long featured on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, al-Masri had been indicted in the United States for crimes related to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The FBI had offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. As of Friday, his picture was still on the Most Wanted list.

A team from The New York Times first broke the story. It was then tweeted by New York Magazine and HuffPost Contributor Yashar Ali.

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The killing happened during a tumultuous summer which was characterized by frequent explosions in Iran and mounting tensions with the United States. It came days after an enormous explosion in the port of Beirut and a week before the United Nations Security Council was to consider extending an arms embargo against Iran. 

Therefore, Iran may have had a good reason for wanting to hide the fact that it was harboring an avowed enemy of the U.S. 

According to American intelligence officials, al-Masri had been in Iran’s “custody” since 2003 but lived freely in the Pasdaran district of Tehran, an upscale suburb, at least since 2015.

Nonetheless, it is surprising that al-Masri had been living in Iran, given that the country is a bitter enemy of al-Qaeda. Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, have fought each other in Iraq and other places.

“Iran uses sectarianism as a cudgel when it suits the regime, but is also willing to overlook the Sunni-Shia divide when it suits Iranian interests,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Center, said.

Iran has consistently denied that it is housing al-Qaeda officials. In 2018, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi had said that some al-Qaeda members had entered Iran because of Iran’s long and porous border with Afghanistan. They had been detained and returned to their home countries.

However, Western intelligence officials said the al-Qaeda leaders had been kept under house arrest by the Iranian government, and that Iran made at least two deals with al-Qaeda to free some of them in 2011 and 2015.

“If true, this further cuts links between old-school al-Qaeda and the modern jihad,” said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “It just further contributes to the fragmentation and decentralization of the al-Qaeda movement.”