Al Qaeda's Mad Scientist Killed

Egyptian chemist Midhat Mursi, also known as Abu Khabab. AP

This column was written by Dan Darling.
Before his untimely demise in Damadola, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar – a man known better among both jihadists and intelligence agencies as Abu Khabab al-Masri – was one of the most reclusive members of the al Qaeda leadership. Despite having been identified as a senior member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, little public information exists about him. He was among the dozens of Islamists arrested in the 1980s for participation in the conspiracy to kill Anwar Sadat and no information except his birth date (April 29, 1953) is available on the "Rewards for Justice" poster circulated by the U.S. government which offered a $5,000,000 reward for his capture.

According to an Associated Press report from December 2005, which cited Islamist researchers from the London-based Islamic Observation Center, Khabab grew up in Alexandria's crowded al-Asafirah district and graduated from Alexandria University in 1975. He left Egypt for Saudi Arabia in 1987 and from there traveled to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. His activities following the Afghan War are clouded in mystery, but as of the late 1990s he was in charge of his own facility at al Qaeda's Darunta training camp in Afghanistan. It is the activities undertaken at that camp and other facilities like it, however, that elevated Khabab's profile.

According to computer files recovered by the Wall Street Journal in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as of May 1999 the al Qaeda leadership, spearheaded by the group's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, had decided to establish an unconventional weapons program codenamed al Zabadi ("curdled milk"). The unit was to be headed by Khabab; a large sum amounting to several thousand dollars was approved as its start-up budget. As of May 26, 1999, another computer file noted that Khabab had made "significant progress" with his work, a comment made all the more ominous by the discovery of al Qaeda videotapes aired on CNN in 2002, which showed Khabab and several assistants killing three dogs in crude chemical weapons experiments using what is believed to have been hydrogen cyanide, the same agent used by the in gas chambers in Nazi death camps.

How far Khabab got with al Zabadi before the war in Afghanistan is unknown, but according to the Robb-Silberman commission on weapons of mass destruction, U.S. intelligence had assessed prior to the invasion that al Qaeda "had small quantities of toxic chemicals and pesticides, and had produced small amounts of World War I-era agents such as hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, and phosgene . . . Training manuals . . . indicated that group members were familiar with the production and deployment of common chemical agents" and that unconfirmed reports "indicated that al Qaeda operatives had sought to acquire more modern and sophisticated chemical agents."

More alarmingly, the commission noted that post-war discoveries had shown that the terror network's biological weapons program "was further along... than pre-war intelligence indicated," particularly with regard to an agent the report referred to by the commission as "Agent X." According to the commission, "Reporting supports the hypothesis that al Qaeda had acquired several biological agents possibly as early as 1999, and had the necessary equipment to enable limited, basic production of Agent X."

  • Jaclyn Schiff

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