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Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook briefs reporters Nov. 22, 2016, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook briefs reporters Nov. 22, 2016, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Jette Carr/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — A U.S. military drone strike in northwestern Syria last week killed a longtime senior al-Qaida leader, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday.

Abu Afghan al-Masri, an Egyptian who initially joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan before moving to Syria to help lead the terrorist organization’s affiliate there, was killed in the airstrike Nov. 18 near Sarmada in Idlib Province, Cook said. Al-Masri retained ties to core al-Qaida affiliates in Afghanistan as well as other groups in southwest Asia “responsible for attacking U.S. and coalition forces … and plotting to attack the West,” he said.

“Al-Masri’s removal from the battlefield represents another blow to al-Qaida in Syira and demonstrates continued U.S. determination to target al-Qaida leaders wherever they pose a threat to the U.S., our allies and interests,” Cook told reporters at the Pentagon.

Al-Masri was a powerful Sharia court judge and senior commander within al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, according to several news reports.

Earlier this year, al-Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and claimed it had broken its links to al-Qaida, but Pentagon officials have rejected that pronouncement and continued to attack its leadership.

Cook did not say Monday whether the United States believed al-Masri was actively involved in plotting attacks on American or Western targets.

“This is someone with a long history with al-Qaida, and the reason he was targeted was because of his role in al-Qaida in years past and currently,” Cook said.

The strike was among several recent attacks on al-Qaida leadership in the Middle East. Last month, U.S. military drone strikes killed two al-Qaida leaders in Syria and Yemen who the Pentagon said were involved in planning attacks on American and Western targets.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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