What happened: Over the weekend the New York Times revealed that al-Qaeda’s no.2, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was assassinated three months ago whilst living under an alias in Iran.
- According to the report, the attack was carried out by Israeli operatives at the request of the Trump administration.
- Last night Channel 12 News reported that Abdullah, who also went by the name Abu Mohammed al-Masri, was planning attacks against Israelis and Jews around the world.
- He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. According to a follow up report by AP yesterday, she was also a target as she was being prepared for a leadership role in al-Qaeda and intelligence suggested she was involved in operational planning.
Context: The revelation is deeply embarrassing for Iran, caught protecting a Sunni jihadist leader, a sworn enemy, while fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
- The attack represents another failure of the Iranian security apparatus and an impressive intelligence and operational success for Israel and the US. It comes after other intelligence operations against the Iranian nuclear programme, including explosions in Natanz and the capturing of the Iranian nuclear archive.
- The modus operandi, by gunmen on a motorbike with a silencer, is reminiscent of assassinations against several Iranian nuclear scientists from a decade ago, attributed to the Mossad.
- The timing of the revelation could be to send a signal to President-elect Joe Biden as to the closeness of Israel-US intelligence ties.
- Israel-US intelligence agencies have cooperated closely on other operations in the past, including the targeting of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, the Stuxnet virus that damaged the Iranian nuclear project and the reported cyberattack on the Bandar Abbas port earlier this year.
- According to Israeli analysts, Abdulllah would not have been a priority for Mossad, who were unlikely to have risked its own personnel to such a dangerous mission. More likely, the strike was carried out by third party operatives, from Iranian opposition groups.
- Beyond the operation, there is symbolic significance of targeting one of the last founding fathers of al-Qaeda. He was killed on the 22nd anniversary of one of his most lethal attacks, the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded hundreds.
Looking ahead: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to arrive in Israel later this week as part of a broader trip to the Middle East. He will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and high on their agenda is expected to be what new sanctions ought to be placed on Iran before the inauguration of the Biden administration.
- Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani is also expected to visit Israel on Wednesday. He will be the first Bahraini official to visit after the Israeli cabinet ratified the peace treaty yesterday. He is expected to take part in a trilateral meeting alongside Pompeo and Netanyahu.
- Israeli analysts do not expect Trump to attack Iranian nuclear facilities before leaving the White House, but we may hear of more revelations of covert operations against Iran.