The killing of an al-Qaida chemical weapons expert in a missile strike two weeks ago on a Pakistani border village has dealt a heavy blow to the terrorist group's ambitions to build weapons of mass destruction, a former CIA case officer says.
Abu Khabab al-Masri was dubbed by terrorism analysts as al-Qaida's "mad scientist." His most notorious work, recorded on videotape, showed dogs being killed in poison gas experiments in Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled.
"If he is out of the picture, al-Qaida's weapons of mass destruction capability has been set back, which would make this one of the more effective strikes in recent years," Arthur Keller, an ex-CIA case officer in Pakistan, told The Associated Press. Keller led the hunt for al-Masri in 2006.
The U.S. offered a $5 million bounty for the 55-year old Egyptian, and the CIA had been hunting him for years. Al-Qaida confirmed his death days after the July 28 attack by unmanned drones on a tribesman's compound in the village of Azam Warsak in South Waziristan.
Al-Masri, whose real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, got his chemical weapons training in the Egyptian army before defecting to the militant Islamic Jihad group, founded by al-Qaida's no. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The U.S. government says that since 1999, al-Masri had been distributing manuals for making chemical and biological weapons.
"I believe that al-Qaida has no shortage of people adept with explosives, and I know that al-Masri promulgated training manuals for poisons," Keller said, "but I'm not sure how skilled any of Al-Masri's proteges may be at synthesizing chemical weapons or toxins."
It's not easy, he said.
"You need both education and hands-on experience to produce decent-quality chemical weapons or toxins."
Chlorine has been used in bombings by militants in Iraq, but these were locally inspired, a U.S. counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity, not being authorized to comment publicly on the sensitive issue.
Also, no evidence has surfaced that al-Masri continued the chemicals research after moving to Pakistan, although the U.S. government said he was likely carrying out training.
U.S. intelligence agencies tracking al-Masri viewed him as "frightening," said Brian Glyn Williams, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, who has just completed research for the U.S. government on weapons of mass destruction.
"From the U.S. government perspective, he was seen as a major threat. His potential to develop primitive weapons of mass destruction was not taken lightly by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies," said Williams.
Suspected trainer of bombers
Al-Masri was also suspected of helping to train the suicide bombers who attacked the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. More recently, he trained militants fighting Western troops in Afghanistan.
His death had already been wrongly reported in a 2006 strike. This time it was confirmed in an al-Qaida statement that said he and three other senior al-Qaida figures were killed, along with some of their children.
Al-Masri is the second senior al-Qaida leader to die in missile strikes in Pakistan this year. In January, Abu Laith al-Libi, a top strategist for the group in Afghanistan, was killed in North Waziristan.
A senior Taliban militant from Afghanistan, Qari Mohammed Yusuf, said al-Masri had returned to South Waziristan from fighting in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province just hours before he was killed.
Al-Masri had spent 40 days in Paktika, which borders South Waziristan, leading a company of non-Afghans in assaults against Afghan and coalition forces, and had lost several fighters, Yusuf said.
He said the Egyptian took his instructions directly from al-Zawahri, his countryman, by e-mail or handwritten letters delivered by messenger.
Yusuf has family ties to al-Qaida and says his two eldest brothers died fighting with al-Zawahri against Northern Alliance soldiers during Taliban rule. Afghan authorities confirm Yusuf is a senior Taliban from northern Afghanistan — not the Taliban spokesman who goes by the same name.
A report by counterterrorism consultant Dan Darling said al-Masri was a scientist in the Egyptian military chemical weapons program, but turned against his government for making peace with Israel in 1979.
He joined al-Zawahri's Islamic Jihad group, and when it merged with al-Qaida, became head of Project al-Zabadi, its WMD program, Darling wrote in a report posted in the Long War Journal, a Web site on terrorism.
Only after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan did evidence of al-Masri's chemical experiments emerge, at al-Qaida's Darunta complex 70 miles east of Kabul.
A videotape obtained by CNN in 2002 showed dogs being killed in gas experiments. Intelligence sources said a voice heard on the tape was al-Masri's, the cable network said at the time.
Experts believe the gas was hydrogen cyanide, used in gas-chamber executions. But NATO chemical weapons specialists said the compound has long been viewed as an unsatisfactory mass-casualty chemical weapon because of its instability and low density.
Still, Western officials worry that terrorists are using the regions that border Pakistan and Afghanistan as a base not just for insurgency but for planning another 9/11-scale attack.
"The death of Abu Khabab al-Masri has a short-term impact on al-Qaida's operations by eliminating a competent senior leader," said Seth Jones, analyst for the U.S.-based RAND Corp. "Over the long run, however, al-Qaida has demonstrated an ability to replace most of its leaders that have been captured or killed."