Abu Khabab al-Masri, the unconventional weapons specialist of al-Qaeda, was killed in the January 13 airstrike at Damadola in Pakistan. His death, reported by the Pakistani daily Dawn (www.dawn.com) quoting security sources, is especially important given Osama bin Laden’s January 19 audiotape in which he spoke of operations underway in the United States. Many conceive that a possible attack from bin Laden will take the form of an unconventional device of some sort, and the prospect of such an attack, according to newly-appointed head of counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department Henry Crumpton, is considered merely “a question of time.”
The 53-year old Egyptian national Abu Khabab (full name: Midhat Mursi al-Sayyid ‘Umar) was of pivotal importance in the development of al-Qaeda’s unconventional capability, and the training of large numbers of operatives in the requisite skills, an importance reflected by the US$5 million reward posted for his arrest. Abu Khabab’s jihad activity goes back to the period of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981 as a senior member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. His importance to the developing al-Qaeda movement was recognized early. He played a senior role after August 1998 when, following the destruction of the al-Shifa facility in Sudan (suspected of the manufacture of chemical weapons), he set up and ran the unconventional weapons program Project al-Zabadi (“Yoghurt”) in Afghanistan.
As director of the Derunta camp situated near Jalalabad, Abu Khabab is said to have tested nerve gas and to have conducted filmed experiments with cyanide on dogs. The most famous alumnus of Derunta was the “millennium bomber” Ahmed Ressam, convicted in July 2005 for a plot to bomb Los Angeles Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999. Ressam mentioned that al-Qaeda was testing toxins at the camp for use in assassination attempts of Western political and intelligence officials and that many students were being trained from all over the world. From this period Abu Khabab had been active in publishing and distributing training manuals that contained recipes for crude chemical and biological weapons.
Following U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Abu Khabab dropped off the radar, although his name appeared in investigations into several attempted unconventional weapons attacks, such as the failed chemical and poison attacks in Europe in the run-up to the coalition intervention against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Some of the arrested suspects in these attacks had received training in the Caucasus, confirming information that successors to the Afghan Derunta camp had been set up in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia.
The most serious attempt at an unconventional weapons attack from jihadist extremists was the April 2004 incident in the Jordanian capital Amman, where government estimates put the potential casualty rate of al-Zarqawi’s aide Azmi al-Jayyousi’s targeting of the key installations in the city at 20,000 plus. Abu Khabab’s involvement in this plot is suspected but not proven. Yet until Abu Khabab’s death, “Project al-Zabadi” was considered to be still in operation in one form or another.
The New York Post indicated in December 2003 that a full-scale manhunt was underway for Abu Khabab, motivated by suspicions that the Egyptian scientist was actively engaged in the construction of a “dirty bomb” for use on attacks in the United States. The Pakistan bomb strike at Damadola, therefore, appears to be a significant operational success. Abu Khabab’s value to the jihad is his pivotal role in turning one of many of al-Qaeda’s wish lists into practical advances in the production of unconventional weaponry. The question remains about the numbers and expertise of Abu Khabab’s students from camps in Afghanistan, Georgia and Pakistan that are still at large.