WASHINGTON - United States intelligence agencies have been hunting for one of al-Qaida's most notorious members - an expert in poisons and lethal chemicals. But NBC News has learned they have been trying to find him by using a photo of the wrong man on his wanted poster.
For a year and a half, the U.S. government has been asking for the public's help in finding Midhat Mursi al-Sayid 'Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, a dangerous al-Qaida operative. But now intelligence officials admit to NBC News they were using a photo of a different man.
Abu Khabab is allegedly bin Laden's expert on poisons. He was shown on a State Deparment “Rewards for Justice” Web site, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
NBC then located an early television interview with the imam, and compared it with the wanted poster. There are similarities: the unusual white patch of hair, the fold of the shirt collar and the strip of white over his shoulder.
After NBC news shared its findings with the CIA, a CIA spokesman then admitted a “human error” and said, at some point, an “incorrect photo” was provided for the Web site. However, the official insists all other intelligence on Abu Khabab is accurate.
“It's embarrassing,” says NBC News terrorism expert Roger Cressy. “It's a bit of a black eye, but it's not going to have any long-term impact on the CIA or its ability to fight the war on terror.”
The hunt for “Abu Khabab” may now be over. Pakistani intelligence officials say he was killed recently in the Predator missile attack in Pakistan. And that photo on the State Department Web site? It has been replaced with a silhouette.
Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent