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Al Qaeda weapon expert presumed dead

Latest update : 2008-07-29

Al Qaeda chemical weapons expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar is reported to have died in a US missile strike in Pakistan Monday. The US accuse the Egyptian-born Midhat Mursi of running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda weapons expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar has long embodied western fears that the terror network could get its hands on chemical or biological munitions.

The shadowy Egyptian, whom Pakistani officials said was believed killed in an air strike on Monday, had a five-million-dollar reward for his death or capture because of his activities in the field.

Known in militant circles by the nom du guerre Abu Khabab al-Masri -- al-Masri means "The Egyptian" in Arabic -- the United States describes him as a "an explosives expert and poisons trainer working on behalf of al Qaeda."

Born in Egypt in 1953, he studied for a science degree in his homeland before becoming involved in Islamic radicalism.

He served as a trainer at al Qaeda's Derunta training camp in Afghanistan during the group's early days in the 1990s, where he trained "hundreds" of militants, according to the US government Rewards for Justice programme.

One of them was reportedly Richard Reid, the British "shoe bomber" serving a life sentence in the United States for trying to blow up a transatlantic jet in 2001.

"Since 1999, he has distributed training manuals that contain instructions for making chemical and biological weapons. Some of these training manuals were recovered by US forces in Afghanistan," the programme's website says.

But he has proved a difficult man to track down despite his notoriety.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf announced in 2006 that Umar had been killed in an air strike in the Bajaur tribal region that targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy.

But al Qaeda always denied that he had died, and last year reports began to emerge from the South Waziristan tribal region that he was alive and well.

"I met him several times at the bazaar in Wana (the main town in South Waziristan). We all knew him as the Egyptian," a resident of the area told AFP on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Further confusion arose when the US government admitted in 2006 that the official rewards website featuring his photo had used the wrong picture for a year and a half.

The picture was replaced by a silhouette for a time and now features an apparently dated passport-type photo of a man with a long black beard who appears to be in his twenties.

But Pakistani officials said that his importance to al Qaeda was not in doubt.

"He has been a key al Qaeda planner and very influential in the hierarchy," a senior security official told AFP.

"He is a very close confidante of Zawahiri and actively involved in al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Date created : 2008-07-28