The fall of 1998 marked a high point in Abu Muhammad al-Masri's career. He had just returned to Afghanistan from East Africa, where he had masterminded al-Qa'ida's deadliest attack on the United States yet--the twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (1) He had positioned himself as one of Usama bin Ladin's key confidants, to be consulted on the planning of all major attacks. And he had risen to the leadership of al-Qa'ida's network of training camps.
Around this time, reports came to Abu Muhammad that a certain recruit, a Palestinian-Jordanian named Abu Moutassem, was behaving strangely. (2) Despite claiming a history in the jihad stretching back over a decade, he struggled to control his rifle. He had a suspiciously large amount of cash, as well as a valid visa for Afghanistan in his passport--a formality with which most self-respecting jihadis would not bother. And he was overheard talking on the phone apparently speaking in code. (3) Abu Jandal, bin Ladin's bodyguard, had a concise take on the matter: "If that chap is a jihadi," he said to al-Qa'ida's military chief, Abdel Hadi al-Iraqi, "you can cut my arms off!"
Abu Muhammad had Abu Moutassem arrested and proceeded to interrogate him personally. It was not long before Abu Moutassem confessed that he was working for Jordanian intelligence. "I'm ready to tell you everything," the terrified spy told Abu Muhammad, "so long as you guarantee me a fair trial."
Evidently Abu Muhammad calculated that the prospect of a fair hearing was worth the potentially valuable intelligence Abu Moutassem might provide. Instead of shooting the man on the spot as many other jihadis might have done, he bundled the Jordanian into a car and drove him to Logar, south of Kabul, to meet face-to-face with bin Ladin. Saif al-'Adl, the hot-headed Egyptian former paratrooper then serving as al-Qa'ida's security chief, was less eager to show mercy to the unmasked spy. Al-'Adl quickly pulled together a lynch mob of fellow jihadis and followed Abu Muhammad's vehicle.
When they arrived at Logar, Abu Muhammad confronted al-'Adl - and his crew, demanding to know why they had come and reminding them of an ugly previous incident in which some of the same men had beaten another alleged spy to death. Al-Qa'ida was not the government of Afghanistan; the Taliban was. Indeed, bin Ladin had recently sworn allegiance in secret to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. As Abu Muhammad said, "Al-Qa'ida does not want to be accused of taking the law into its own hands by interrogating suspects or, even worse, killing them without referring the matter to the Taliban first."
In response, al-'Adl and his gang did something unusual--they backed down. The spy was handed over to the Taliban, pumped for intelligence, and eventually freed.
This incident showcases the high regard in which Abu Muhammad al-Masri has been held within al-Qa'ida. The episode also provides a window into Abu Muhammad's personality. For unlike many jihadis, who are motivated by feeling and passion, Abu Muhammad's actions seem to be governed by logic and calculation.
This article aims to synthesize what is known about Abu Muhammad al-Masri, draw some conclusions as to his current and future role, and assess what some of the implications may be for global jihad.
First in Line
Understanding Abu Muhammad is important because as the United Nations Sanctions Coordinator recently noted, he and Saif al-'Adl are "next in line" to take over the al-Qa'ida leadership from a potentially ailing Ayman al-Zawahiri. (4) In fact, as this article will make clear, of all living jihadis, Abu Muhammad al-Masri has the strongest claim to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as emir of al-Qa'ida. In early 2001, al-Qa'ida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) merged after a long courtship. Usama bin Ladin named EIJ's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as his deputy and successor, much to the chagrin of some in al-Qa'ida who saw the Egyptian as an interloper. (5) Beneath al-Zawahiri in the hierarchy stood the group's military chief, Mohammed Atef (also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri and not to be confused with lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta). Underneath Atef was a trio of fellow Egyptians: Saif al-'Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, both of whom had been with al-Qa'ida since its inception, and Abu al-Khair al-Masri, who came with al-Zawahiri from EIJ.
After the 9/11 attacks, Atef became the only senior al-Qa'ida leader to stay behind in Kandahar. (He was practically bedridden, thanks to a herniated spinal disc. (6)) He was killed in a U.S. airstrike on his home in November 2001. (7) In the number-three slot, this left the trio of senior Egyptians--Abu al-Khair, Saif al-'Adl, and Abu Muhammad--roughly equal in rank. A few years later, in correspondence recovered from bin Ladin's Abbottabad compound, the al-Qa'ida founder explicitly put Abu al-Khair and Abu Muhammad, in that order, ahead of al-'Adl (albeit possibly as a means of venting his displeasure at an article attributed to al-'Adl that urged the creation of an Islamic State in Iraq, something the al-Qa'ida leader saw as premature). (8)
At some point between the death of Usama bin Ladin in May 2011 and that of the Yemeni operative Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June 2015, members of al-Qa'ida's governing shura council signed documents apparently intended to formalize bin Ladin's intentions with regard to the succession. (9) They agreed that in the event of al-Zawahiri's death or incapacitation, leadership would pass first to Abu al-Khair, then to Abu Muhammad, then to Saif al-'Adl. (10) This line of succession, of course, was established before al-Qa'ida began publicly grooming Hamza bin Ladin as a future leader, but this would likely not have affected Abu Muhammad's place in the queue. His generation would have been given a chance to lead before the torch passed to jihadis of Hamza's age. Regardless, Hamza's death, apparently confirmed in September 2019, removes any potential ambiguity. (11) And in any event, signed promises carry great weight among jihadis.
In late 2015 or early 2016, Abu al-Khair, having been named as "general deputy" to al-Zawahiri, was sent to Syria to serve as al-Zawahiri's personal representative to al-Qa'ida-aligned jihadi groups fighting in that conflict. Abu al-Khair was killed in Idlib province in February 2017 when a missile from a U.S. drone struck his car. (12) According to what is known about al-Qa'ida's succession, that leaves Abu Muhammad al-Masri first in line to inherit the leadership.
The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called "caliph" of the Islamic State, further raises the stakes for the next emir of al-Qa'ida. The Islamic State began life as an al-Qa'ida franchise, and only split from the parent organization in 2014. Since then, scholars and analysts have speculated on whether and how the two groups might merge once more. Ayman al-Zawahiri is unlikely to be capable of leading such a reconciliation, given the perception of him as an interloper who spent most of his career with a different organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But Abu Muhammad, as will be outlined, has been with al-Qa'ida from the very beginning and would therefore face no such impediment. Moreover, al-Baghdadi's death bequeaths the Islamic State its own succession challenge: with so many of its senior leaders dead or captured, the group has resorted to promoting virtual unknowns. Its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had no name recognition among global jihadis when the group announced he had become 'caliph' and has not yet been seen nor heard from. (13a) Moreover, much of the animosity between the Islamic State and al-Qa'ida has built up around a war of words between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi personally; with both of them gone, reconciliation could become markedly easier. Abu Muhammad, should he succeed al-Zawahiri relatively soon, will therefore potentially enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to bring former Islamic State members into the al-Qa'ida fold.
Abu Muhammad was born Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah in June 1963 in Gharbia, a governorate of Lower Egypt in the central Nile Delta. (14) As a young man, he played soccer professionally for a club in the Egyptian premier league. (15) Given his age, he was also part of a generation of Egyptian Sunnis vulnerable to radicalization. He would have been 15 years old when Iran became a Shi'a theocracy and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace deal with Menachem Begin's Israel; 16 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; and 18 when Sadat was assassinated by a cell of EIJ, the organization Ayman al-Zawahiri would later lead.
For disaffected Arab youths of Abu Muhammad's generation, Afghanistan's decade-long struggle against Soviet occupation, from 1979 to 1989, acted as a lightning rod. Usama bin Ladin bankrolled hundreds of foreign fighters--known as "Arab Afghans'--using his share of the bin Ladin family's vast fortune. Abu Muhammad was among the many who came into bin Ladin's orbit in this way.
By the early summer of 1988, the war-weary Soviet Union had begun to withdraw from Afghanistan, but several Arab governments--foremost among them Abu Muhammad's native Egypt--blocked the return of their nationals who had fought in the conflict. It was out of this subculture of stranded foreign fighters that, in or around August 1988, bin Ladin founded a new, explicitly international, emphatically religious organization called al-Qa'ida al-Askariya--the Military Base. (16) Membership in the new group was to be limited to militants whose presence in Afghanistan was of "open duration"--in other words, indefinite. (17) In effect, given the Egyptian government's crackdown on returning foreign fighters, that requirement meant that a disproportionate number of founding members would be Egyptian. From the earliest days of al-Qa'ida, bin Ladin singled out the Egyptians for particular praise, saying, "Their...