Who is Abu Ubaidah al-Masri and Why Should We Care: An Obituary

ubeideh1In death as in life, the person known by the nom de guerre, Abu Ubaidah al-Masri (“the Egyptian father of Ubaidah”) remains an enigma. US counter-terrorism officials announced in April 2008 that Abu Ubaidah had died of hepatitis the previous December.  Although he was not a marquee name on par with instant-name-recognition figures like Usama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, nor was he as publicly well-known as such prominent al-Qaeda talking heads as Adam Gadhan or Abu Yahya al-Libi, it would be a mistake to dismiss Abu Ubaidah as either a marginal figure or bit player.  As a senior al-Qaeda operational commander, he was reportedly responsible for directing both the July 7, 2005 suicide bomb attacks in London, and the plot uncovered a year later to simultaneously blow up as many as 18 US and Canadian passenger airliners while en route from London to destinations in America.  In many respects, Abu Ubaidah was the jihadist everyman- one of the legions of anonymous soldiers whom we should fear and remember, and indeed pay very close attention to.  Moreover, his inexorable rise to the top of al-Qaeda’s senior command structure reveals as much about that movement’s resiliency, longevity, ambition and intentions as it does about our own ability to effectively deter al-Qaeda and counter the threat it still poses.

A Typical Jihadi Curriculum Vitae

The little information we have about Abu Ubaidah reveals that he was in his 40s or 50s when he died.  No photograph of him is known to exist.  He is described as approximately 5 feet 7 inches in height with a graying beard and hair, his once muscular frame more recently gone soft.  He was said to be missing two fingers- a common affliction among al-Qaeda demolitions experts.  From his nom de guerre, we can deduce that Abu Ubaidah was born in Egypt.  Like many other senior al-Qaeda operatives, (e.g., Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shib, Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah etc.), he lived in the West for the time while in his 20s, both in Germany and in the United Kingdom.

What we know of Abu Ubaidah’s life story is that sometime in the 1980s he traveled to Afghanistan, where he fought as a mujahid against the Soviet Union’s military forces then occupying that country.  Having been bloodied in battle, Abu Ubaidah then became a journeyman fighter, subsequently migrating to the iconic Muslim clashes of the 1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya, before reportedly making his way to Pakistan.  Along the way, he proved his mettle as an urban terrorist as well as a rural guerrilla fighter, allegedly having been involved in the November 1995 suicide bomb attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, in which 17 people were killed.

According to German intelligence, Abu Ubaidah arrived in Munich that same year and, using an alias, applied for political asylum.  During the four years he resided in Germany,  Abu Ubaidah reputedly befriended Ayman al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law, a Moroccan computer science student, as well as a group of Jordanian jihadists who later were implicated in a planned shooting attack on Jews.  In 1999, German authorities denied Abu Ubaidah’s asylum request and ordered him jailed while awaiting deportation.  For reasons unknown, he was released and appears to have headed for Afghanistan.

The available evidence suggests that like other al-Qaeda luminaries, including fellow Egyptians Saif al-Adl and Mohammed Atef, as well as  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Ubaidah also became a trainer at one of al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan, instructing, inspiring and building a new generation of jihadists.  During the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, he fought alongside the Taliban in al-Qaeda’s elite 055 Brigade, perhaps the most disciplined jihadi military unit that opposed US and Coalition military forces during Operation Enduring Freedom.  Reports suggest that after fleeing across the border to Pakistan, Abu Ubaidah played a role in helping the Taliban to reorganize and regroup.  A gap then appears in Abu Ubaidah’s curriculum vitae.  He next surfaced years later as al-Qaeda’s commander in Kunar province, Afghanistan, the most violent area of insurgent operations in that country, sitting astride Afghanistan’s lawless border with Pakistan.  Following Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture in 2003, Abu Ubaidah also reportedly became part of a group of senior al-Qaeda operational planners who oversaw al-Qaeda’s external operations against the West, and specifically against Britain, eventually ascending to the command position of chief of al-Qaeda’s external operations.

Abu Ubaidah’s transition from rural guerrilla fighter, to field commander, to urban terrorist controller-in-chief is instructive.  He was clearly someone who was both comfortable and adept at waging war in dramatically different theaters of operation.  His adaptability and ability to fight on multiple dimensions in different settings is typical of today’s al-Qaeda field officers: hardened combat veterans, well-acquainted with deprivation and hardship, capable of living in harsh geographical terrain and surviving even while they themselves are relentlessly hunted by government counter-terrorism forces.  Indeed, Abu Ubaidah himself twice escaped American attempts to eliminate him.  In January 2006, a Hellfire missile fired by a US Predator drone killed four senior al-Qaeda officials, as well as at least 18 other men and women and children, in the Pakistan village of Damadola, near the Afghan border.  Although Abu Ubaidah was one of the targets of the strike, he avoided death.  Nine months later helicopter gunships attacked a religious school in a tribal area of Pakistan frequently visited by al-Zawahiri.  Eighty persons were killed, but the al-Qaeda leaders were not among them.

Abu Ubaidah, however, had ascended to his final command position, responsible for al-Qaeda’s overseas operations, as a result of the capture of one of his immediate predecessors, Abu Faraj al-Libi,[1] in June 2005 and the killing of the other, Abu Hamza Rabia, a fellow Egyptian, who perished in a US missile strike in Pakistan in November 2005.  It is a reflection of al-Qaeda’s depth in numbers that the movement was apparently not thrown completely off balance by the successive deaths of two its most senior operations officers.  Indeed, rather than repine, al-Qaeda’s chiefs moved quickly to appoint a successor — Abu Ubaidah, who stepped in to assume command of the airlines plot.


The Plot Thickens

On April 4, 2008, the trial of the eight British Muslims implicated in the trans-Atlantic bomb plot began in Woolwich Crown Court in east London.  The prosecution alleged that the men planned “wholesale death and destruction in the skies above Europe and North America.”  The scale of the attacks was described as “unprecedented.”[2] The means were as sophisticated as they were simple.  Liquid explosives, concocted from a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and other commercially available ingredients long favored by al-Qaeda bombers, would be dyed to look like the popular British energy drinks Lucozade and Oasis.  The terrorists would then use syringes to inject the explosives into the base of the sealed plastic bottles after their original contents had been drained and the small insertion would then be sealed with epoxy.  Ordinary disposable cameras were to be rigged to trigger an initial, small, explosion once the planes were in flight, that would in turn detonate the larger quantity of explosive in the bottle.  The hole made in the aircraft fuselage would be sufficient to cause catastrophic failure of the affected aircraft, and the death of all passengers and crew on board.

ubeideh2A computer memory stick seized by police from one of the defendants detailed at least seven specific flights, departing within two and a half hours of one another from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3, that had been selected as targets.[3] So-called “martyrdom tapes”— digital suicide videos recorded by six of the plotters explaining the reasons for the attacks — were also introduced into evidence by the prosecution. This author has screened one of, made by a 27-year-old defendant, named Abdullah Ahmed Ali. It is chilling in both content and intention. Rather than the usual monotone recitation of the suicide bombers “will,” Ali’s tape is presented in question and answer format with an off-camera interlocutor. He describes himself as the leader of the “blessed operation,” stating that,

  We warned you so many times to get out of our lands, leave us alone, but you have persisted in trying to humiliate us, kill us and destroy us and Sheikh Usama [bin Laden] warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed, and now the time has come for you to be destroyed.

You have nothing but to expect that floods of martyr operations, volcanoes of anger and revenge and raping among your capital and yet, taste what you have made us taste for a long time and now you have [to] bear the fruits that you have sown.

Stop meddling in our affairs and we will leave you alone, otherwise expect floods of martyr operations against you and we will take our revenge and anger, ripping amongst your people and scattering the people and your body parts and the people’s body parts responsible for these wars and oppression decorating the street.

When asked how he justified the death of the many innocent women and children on board the flights, who would have had nothing to do with the oppression and attacks on Muslims elsewhere, Ali was dismissive.  “There are no innocents,” he blithely declared.[4]

During the opening phase of the trial it was also revealed that the bombers’ targets and ambitions extended well beyond commercial aviation.  They also discussed attacking power plants, including nuclear power stations, in Britain; gas and oil refineries located in Bacton, Fawley, Correton and Kingsbury; the country’s national electricity grid; London’s Canary Wharf office complex; a gas pipeline between Britain and Belgium; Heathrow Airport’s new control tower; and industrial facilities that store and process hydrogen peroxide.[5] At least one or two of the plotters traveled to Pakistan to meet with and, presumably be trained by, Abu Ubaidah.  It was also reported that in addition to the British plots, Abu Ubaidah was overseeing an operation to carry out a major attack in Copenhagen.  Al-Qaeda has repeatedly threatened Denmark because of the publication of cartoons regarded as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad and to Islam.

What is especially alarming about the airlines plot, however, is that it was directed against arguably the most internationally-hardened target set since 9/11, commercial aviation. Conventional wisdom once held a diminished and degraded al-Qaeda only capable of attacks against softer, more accessible targets like subway and commuter trains, hotels, and tourist destinations. This development calls into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about al-Qaeda’s capabilities and intentions, given that the movement seems undeterred from the same grand homicidal ambitions it demonstrated on 9/11.  Equally disquieting is the fact that despite the capture of the operation’s first al-Qaeda controller, Abu Faraj al-Libi and the killing of his successor, Abu Hamza Rabia, al-Qaeda’s heinous plans were neither stopped nor de-railed.  Instead, operational authority merely passed to Abu Ubaidah.  With Abu Ubaidah’s passing, the obvious and most pressing question is: who now has the operational control of al-Qaeda’s external operations?

1     See Staff and Agencies, “Pakistan links al-Qaida's number two to plot,” The Guardian (London), 17 August 2006 accessed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/aug/17/terrorism.pakistan; and, Duncan Campbell, “Pakistan says al-Qaida Link to Plot Found,” The Guardian (London), 17 August 2006 accessed at


2    Peter Wright, for the prosecution, quoted in Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, “8 Accused in Transatlantic Bomb Plot Go on Trial,” Washington Post, 4 April 2008; and Kevin Sullivan, “British Jury in Terror Case Shown ‘Martyrdom Tapes’,” Washington Post, 5 April 2008.

3    They were United Airlines Flight 931 to San Francisco, departing at 1415; Air Canada Flight 849 departing to Toronto at 1500; Air Canada Flight 865 departing to Montreal at 1515; United Airlines Flight 959 departing to Chicago at 1540; United Airlines Flight 925 to Washington, D.C., departing at 1620; American Airlines Flight 139 to New York, departing at 1635; and, American Airlines Flight 91 bound for Chicago, departing at 1650.  See Richard Edwards, Gordon Rayner and Duncan Gardham, “Airline terror plotters wanted heavy casualties,” The Guardian (London), 4 April 2008.

4    “The Lion’s Roar,” digital videotape.

5    Richard Edwards, Gordon Rayner and Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspects ‘planned nuclear station strike’,” The Guardian (London), 4 April 2008.