|Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar (AFP/Getty Images)|
CAIRO - Al Qaeda confirmed yesterday the death of a top commander accused of training the suicide bombers who killed 17 American sailors on the USS Cole eight years ago.
Abu Khabab al-Masri, who had a $5 million bounty on his head from the United States, is believed to have been killed in an air strike apparently launched by the United States in Pakistan last week.
An Al Qaeda statement posted on the Internet said Masri and three other top figures were killed and warned of vengeance for their deaths. It did not say when, where or how they died but said some of their children were killed along with them.
Pakistani authorities have said they believe Masri is one of six people killed in an air strike on July 28 on a compound in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region near the Afghan border.
The US military has not confirmed it was behind the missile strike. But similar US attacks are periodically launched on militant targets in the tribal border region.
Both Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding in the rugged and lawless region along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The US Justice Department has accused Masri, an Egyptian militant whose real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, of training terrorists to use poisons and explosives.
He is also believed to have helped run Al Qaeda's Darunta training camp in eastern Afghanistan until the camp was abandoned amid the 2001 US invasion of the country. There he is thought to have conducted experiments in chemical and biological weapons, testing materials on dogs.
The Al Qaeda statement called Masri and the other three slain commanders "a group of heroes" and warned of retaliation.
"We tell the enemies of God that God has saved those who will be even more painful for you," it said. "As Abu Khabab has gone, he left behind, with God's grace, a generation of faithful students who will make you suffer the worst torture and avenge him and his brothers."
The statement, whose authenticity could not be independently confirmed, was dated July 30 and signed by Al Qaeda's top Afghan leader, Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed. It was posted on an Islamic militant website where Al Qaeda usually issues official statements and videos of its leaders.
Kamal Shah, a senior official in Pakistan's Interior Ministry, said the government had "no official confirmation as yet" that Masri was dead. The White House declined to comment yesterday.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials and at least one pro-Taliban militant have said they believed Masri had died in the July 28 attack. An American official in Washington had expressed cautious optimism Masri, whose pseudonym means "father of the trotting horse, the Egyptian," was among the dead.
Terrorism specialists downplayed the significance of Masri's death.
"A big name does not mean a big impact on the ground," said Mustafa Alani, director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "The bottom line is that those people are replaceable."