Abu Muhammad al-Masri, the No. 2 leader of al-Qaeda was killed in Iran last summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed on Tuesday, though he did not say if the U.S. ordered his assassination or had a role in carrying it out.
“Today, I can confirm for the fist time his death on August 7th of last year,” Pompeo said in remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The New York Times reported in November that al-Masri was “gunned down” in Tehran by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States. He was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” for his role in the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which left more than 200 people deal, including 12 Americans.
Pompeo confirmed al-Masri’s death in a broader speech that cast Iran as the new “home base” for al-Qaeda – without offering direct new evidence.
“Iran is indeed the new Afghanistan, as the key geographic hub for al-Qaeda,” Pompeo said. “They’re partners in terrorism, partners in hate. This axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself.”
His provocative remarks come just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office with promises to revive U.S.-Iran diplomacy, including the 2015 multi-lateral nuclear deal, aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.
Pompeo, an Iran hawk, has made it clear he opposes Biden’s plans to return to nuclear negotiations with Iran. Although he did not mention Biden by name on Tuesday, he denounced “appeasement” of Tehran as naive.
“Let’s not lie to the American people about Iranian moderation and pretend the appeasement will work,” he said.
Pompeo said Iran’s ministry of intelligence and security and other agencies have provided “safe havens and logistical support,” such as ID cards and passports, that enable al-Qaeda activity. “As a result of this assistance, al-Qaeda has centralized its leadership inside Tehran,” he said.
Iran experts cast doubt on Pompeo’s allegations.
“It’s just not believable at this point,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “This is an administration that is doing everything it can to create conflict inside of the U.S., and now it’s doing everything it can to make sure that no diplomacy can take place between the U.S. and Iran after it leaves.”
Parsi said Pompeo’s claims amounted to “complete nonsense” and questioned why he waited until the waning days of the Trump administration to announce such potentially explosive allegations.
Alireza Miryousefi, an Iranian diplomat attached to Tehran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, described the State Department’s claims as “preposterous,” “false” and “nothing new.”
Iran has long maintained that al-Qaeda’s chief backers in the Middle East are countries with whom the U.S. has good relations, such as Saudi Arabia.
Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert and professor at Northeastern University, noted that al-Qaeda is first and foremost associated with Saudi Arabia, not Iran. The Trump administration has forged extremely close ties with the Saudi kingdom and made isolating Iran a cornerstone of its foreign policy agenda over the last four years.
In a tweet after Pompeo’s speech, Abrahms said it’s true that Iran has had “some shady ties with Al Qaeda. We have know this for many, many years.”
But, he added, “if you’re looking to Iran rather than Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar & Pakistan to understand state sponsorship of Al Qaeda then you have been duped and lost the plot.”
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, also questioned Pompeo’s motives in making Tuesday’s speech.
“It’s just more of an effort to justify a failed policy toward Iran under the Trump administration. What more mud can they possibly throw?” Slavin said. “Iran has had a relationship with al Qaeda for a long time. If that relationship has gotten closer, then Mike Pompeo should just look in the mirror.”