Mohammed Atef

Mohammed Atef
Mohammed Atef
Born 1944,[1] 1951,[2] 1956[2]
Menoufya[1] or Alexandria[2]
Died November 14–16, 2001[1]
Kabul, Afghanistan
Alternate name Abu Hafs al-Masri,
Taysir Abdullah,[1]
Abu Khadijah,[1]
Abu Fatima[4]

Mohammed Atef (Arabic: محمد عاطف‎, Muḥammad ‘Āṭaf) (born Sobhi Abu Setta,[1] also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri) was the alleged military chief of al-Qaida, although his role in the organization was not well known by intelligence agencies for years.[1] His death in November 2001 was one of the United States' largest and first victories in the War on Terror.



Atef served two years in the Egyptian Air Force and became an agricultural engineer.[1][5] He was a police officer and a member of the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad before he moved to Afghanistan to repel the Soviet invasion,[3] while operating from Peshawar.[6] He has been credited as having convinced Abdullah Azzam to abandon his life and devote himself to preaching jihad at this time.[6]

Atef was sent to an Afghan training camp where he met Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later introduced him to Osama bin Laden.[1]

He attended two meetings from August 11–20 in 1988, along with Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Jamal al-Fadl, Wael Hamza Julaidan, and Mohammed Loay Bayazid and eight others, to discuss the founding of "al-Qaeda".[7] Bin Laden later sent a letter to Mohammed Loay Bayazid informing him that Atef and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri were to each be given 6,500 Saudi riyals monthly, the same as they had been given for their work in Maktab al-Khidamat.[8]

In the Sudan

Atef followed al-Qaeda to the Sudan in 1992 until the group was forced to leave,[9] following the execution of the teenaged son of Ahmad Salama Mabruk, and Atef moved to Afghanistan.[10][11]

In 1994, he refused to allow American double agent Ali Mohammed to know which name and passport he would be traveling under, expressing concerns that Mohammed could be working with the American authorities.[12] He traveled to Mombassa, Kenya where he met with Mohammed Odeh and gave him money to purchase himself a 7-tonne trawler and start a fishing business.[13][14][15]

While in the Sudan, he allegedly conducted a study which resulted in him presenting al-Qaeda details on why aircraft hijackings were a poor idea as they were engineered to allow the negotiation of hostages in exchange for prisoners, rather than inflicting damage.[16] Another alleged study he carried out determined that the Afghan Arabs and Taliban could together topple the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, and the government of Iran.[17]

In 1995, Atef gave Khalid Sheikh Mohammed details for a contact in Brazil.[18] When Mohammed returned to Afghanistan, he turned to Atef to set up a meeting with Bin Laden in Tora Bora, at which he told the pair his plans for military attacks against the United States.[18]

Prior to 1996, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, Atef and Yaseen al-Iraqi aided Enaam Arnaout in purchasing AK-47s and mortar rounds from a Pashtun tribesman named Hajjji Ayoub, and they were subsequently delivered in large trucks to the Jawr and Jihad Wahl training camps.[19]

Named military chief

Abu Hafs was the real chief of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was very humble, I could ask him for advice in particular circumstances and he would simply say: "Go and ask Abu Hafs, who is more intelligent than me".

—Paulo Jose de Almeida Santos[14]

In 1996, al-Qaeda's military chief Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria, and Atef was chosen to succeed him.[20] He drew up a plan summarizing the positive qualities of Taliban leaders, and showed his "nuanced understanding" that the United States had energy interests in the Caspian Sea which would lead them to want an oil pipeline built through Afghanistan in the near future.[14]

In 1998, a number of militants began to speak openly of their disdain for Atef, leading Bin Laden to convene a meeting at which he spoke at length about Abu Bakr's loyalty to Muhammad. Comparing Atef to the Prophet's lieutenant, he reminded those present that Atef "knew of Jihad before most of you were even born", and warned them that he didn't want to hear any more "negative talk" about Atef.[21]

Atef was allegedly sent into Somalia at least twice to meet with tribal leaders, once having to escape aboard a small Cessna aircraft used for transporting khat.[22] Years later, a material witness told American authorities that he flew Atef and four others from an al-Qaeda compound in the Sudan, to Nairobi, Kenya to train Somali fighters.[23] This led the United States to accuse him of training the militants who attacked their troops in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.[14]

1998 embassy bombings

On May 7, 1998, Atef faxed Bin Laden a fatwa signed by Afghan scholars on May 7, which said that attacks against American civilians could be justified.[24] Three months later, al-Qaeda carried out the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, leading to Atef's indictment as having been involved in the preparation of the attack.[1]

Following the American reprisal bombings, Atef frisked journalists looking to meet Bin Laden.[1] On November 4, an arrest warrant was issued in the United States for Atef.[25]

Atef also began speaking to Hambali in Singapore, as the Indonesian-based militant sought al-Qaeda's financing for Jemaah Islamiyah operations.[26] In turn, when Atef informed Hambali of al-Qaeda's need for a new biological engineer, the latter sent Yazid Sufaat to al-Zawahiri.[26]

Planning of further militant activity

In the 1999 Returnees from Albania, he was tried in absentia by an Egyptian court which sentenced him to seven years' imprisonment for his associated with the EIJ.[27] That year, he met repeatedly with Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at the Al-Matar complex to discuss possible targets for the 9/11 attacks.[28] Near the end of the year, he met with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah and explained they would be undertaking a highly secret operation, in cooperation with Nawaf al-Hazmi whom he named as Rabia al-Makki.[26]

Following the 2000 USS Cole bombing, Atef was moved to Kandahar, Zawahiri to Kabul, and Bin Laden fled to Kabul, later joining Atef when he realised no American reprisal attacks were forthcoming.[29] Whenever al-Qaeda organised games of volleyball, Atef and Bin Laden were forced to be on separate teams since they were both tall, and good players.[14]

In January 2001, in Kandahar, Atef's daughter married bin Laden's 17-year-old son Mohammed; the wedding guests included Osama's mother, al-Jazeera journalist Ahmad Zaidan, a "few" Taliban party members, and about 400 others. Osama recited poetry about the USS Cole bombing, but was upset with his delivery and tried having Zaidan re-record the section before deciding he preferred the earlier version.[14][30]

That year, Mullah Omar is said to have argued that Bin Laden should not draw further reprisals against Afghanistan by striking the United States again. This led to a schism among al-Qaeda leadership, where Atef sided with Bin Laden, while leaders like Saif al Adel sided with Omar.[31]

He is believed to have given José Padilla money to travel back to Egypt from Afghanistan, to visit his wife. The two then formed a working relationship. He also gave Ramzi bin al-Shibh money to travel from Karachi to Malaysia to meet with Atta.[32] When David Hicks completed his training at al-Farouq, Atef interviewed him about his achievements and asked about the travel habits of Australians, before agreeing to suggest he be moved to the Tarnak Farms training camp.[33]

Atef was a serious-minded man, a disciplined man. He was not the gregarious type who could live with the young mujahideen and understand and solve their problems and address their concerns....his work and activities sometimes compelled him to avoid people and keep away from others.

Abu Jandal[14]

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, and still a fugitive from his U.S. indictment in the 1998 Embassy bombings, Atef appeared on the initial list of the FBI's top 22 Most Wanted Terrorists, which was released to the public by President Bush on October 10, 2001. has suggested that Atef led a "elite unit" of militants who captured and killed rival warlord Abdul Haq in October 2001.[34]

In early November 2001, the Taliban government announced they were bestowing official Afghan citizenship on him, as well as Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Saif al-Adl, and Shaykh Asim Abdulrahman.[35]

Described as a "devout" and "very quiet man", Atef was one of the few al-Qaeda leaders to not make public video statements.[1] He is alleged to have written a 180-page manual entitled "Military Studies in the Holy Struggle against Tyrants", and directed Afghan training camps himself.[27]


Atef was killed, along with his guard Abu Ali al-Yafi'i and six others,[36][37] in a U.S. air-strike on his home near Kabul during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan at some time during November 14–16, 2001.[1] American intelligence intercepted communications from those digging through the rubble of Atef's home, leading them to believe they had been successful in killing him.[3] According to the Combatting Terrorism Center he was killed in a strike on an "al Qa'ida safehouse".[38] Although initial reports said that American bomber aircraft had destroyed the house, it was later revealed that MQ-1 Predator UAVs had attacked the structure.[39][40]

Donald Rumsfeld was initially cautious and indicated only that reports of Atef's death "seem authoritative".[41] His death was confirmed when the ambassador of the Taliban, Abd Al-Salam Dhaif, said three days later, "Abu Hafs al-Masri died from injuries he suffered after US warplanes bombed his house near Kabul." Pakistani authorities warned that he may have actually survived the bombing, and still be on the loose.[42] Two months after his reported death, he was still listed as "wanted" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since no "definitive proof" of his death was ever found, and all claims simply relied on the intercepted phone calls of Afghans saying that he was killed. American authorities conceded it was possible Atef had faked his own death.[43]

When American forces sifted through the rubble of his house, they found a number of videocassettes, including five that carried martyrdom messages from Abderraouf Jdey, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Muhammad Sa'id Ali Hasan, Abd Al-Rahim, and Khalid Ibn Muhammad Al-Juhani.[44] Another videocassette included Hashim Abas casing American institutions in Singapore for possible attack by Jemaah Islamiyah in 1999,[45] but was not turned over to Singapore authorities until December 14.[46] It showed a bus station where American military personnel departed for their base, a temple adjoining American military barracks, a park where off-duty soldiers gathered and the Eagle's Club restaurant owned by the American government for its local workers.[47]

Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison purchased two computers that had been looted from the home on the black market, and noted that while Atef's computer had relatively few files, the other computer appears to have belonged to Ayman al-Zawahiri and held nearly a thousand files, including some of importance.[48]

On November 8, Bin Laden delivered a joint eulogy for Atef and Jummah Khan Namangani.[49] Following his death, it was rumored that Saif al-Adl would take over his position as Military Chief of al-Qaeda.[1][50] Under interrogation, a number of suspected militants including Ibn Shaykh al-Libi later invented fictitious ties from Atef to other non-involved entities to distract American attention from their true colleagues. al-Libi told interrogators that Atef had sent an emissary named Abu Abdullah to Iraq to obtain CBW training for two al-Qaeda members in December 2000. This led the CIA to release a paper tying al-Qaeda to Iraq in January 2003, and justifying the invasion two months later, which arguably relieved some of the pressure on militants in Afghanistan.[51]

Atef appeared in a video released in September 2006 that showed the planning of the September 11 attacks.[52]

Atef has been named as a conspirator in the conspiracy charges against several of the Guantanamo captives.[53] In March 2002, Bosnian security forces raided a Benevolence International Foundation office in Sarejevo and seized a computer which contained a number of documents suggesting a degree of complicity with al-Qaeda, including a letter to Atef from Enaam Arnaout stating that "the organization loaned us a Howitzer cannon, and it must be returned so that it can be transferred to Kabul".[8]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Dawoud, Khaled. The Guardian, Mohammed Atef, November 19, 2001
  2. ^ a b c Department of the Treasury, Specially Designated Nationals List, April 20, 2009
  3. ^ a b c CNN, Reports suggest al Qaeda military chief killed, November 17, 2001
  4. ^ United States v. Usama bin Laden, Transcript of Day 8
  5. ^ Potomac Books, "Through Our Enemies Eyes", p. 95.
  6. ^ a b Raman, B. South Asia Analysis Group, USA's Afghan Ops, November 20, 2001
  7. ^ Wright, Lawrence. "The Looming Tower", 2006. p. 131-134
  8. ^ a b Shay, Shaul. "Islamic Terror in the Balkans", 2008. p. 55
  9. ^ Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Responsibility for the terrorist atrocities, October 4, 2001
  10. ^ Human Rights Watch, Chapter VI: Muhammad al-Zawahiri and Hussain al-Zawahiri
  11. ^ Kushner, Harvey W. "Encyclopedia of Terrorism", 2002. Atef, Muhammad p. 56
  12. ^ Sullivan, John. Raleigh News and Observer, "Al-Qaeda Terrorist Duped FBI, Army", October 21, 2001
  13. ^ Simon Reeve, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, London: Deutsch Limited, 1999, p. 4
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Bergen, Peter. "The Osama bin Laden I Know", 2006
  15. ^ United States of America v. Usama bin Laden et al, May 1, 2001 proceedings
  16. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 153
  17. ^ Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Analysis: Al-Qa'ida Military Training on the Internet, February 16, 2002
  18. ^ a b National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 148
  19. ^ Fitzgerald, Patrick J. United States of America v. Enaam M. Arnaout, "Governments Evidentiary Proffer Supporting the Admissibility of Co-Conspirator Statements", before Hon. Suzanne B. Conlon
  20. ^ Lance, Peter. "Triple-Cross", 2006. p. 104-105
  21. ^ Ressa, Maria. "Seeds of Terror", 2003.
  22. ^ Benjamin, Daniel & Steven Simon. "The Age of Sacred Terror", 2002
  23. ^ Miller, Judity. New York Times, "A Witness Against Al-Qaeda Says the US Let Him Down", June 3, 2002
  24. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 69
  25. ^ USA v. Muhammad Atef, Southern District of New York District Court, November 24, 1998
  26. ^ a b c National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 151
  27. ^ a b Nasrawi, Salah. Chicago Sun-Times, "Key bin Laden aide wrote terror manual", November 17, 2001
  28. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 155
  29. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 191
  30. ^ Newsweek, "Bin Laden's Poetry of Terror", March 26, 2001
  31. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 251
  32. ^ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 9/11 Commission, p. 243
  33. ^ United States v. David Matthew Hicks, June 2004
  34. ^, Abdul Haq fell into trap laid by Bin Laden, October 29, 2001
  35. ^ The Hindu, Taliban grants Osama citizenship, November 9, 2001
  36. ^ World News Connection, Al-Qa'ida member recalls US bombardment, accuses Taliban of betrayal, October 29, 2003
  37. ^ Associated Press, Taliban confirms death of Osama bin Laden's military chief in US strike, November 17, 2001
  38. ^ "Abu Hafs Al Masri". Combatting Terrorism Center. Retrieved 2010-04-29. "Fortunately, Abu Hafs was killed in an al-Qa’ida safehouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November of 2001, when it was bombed by coalition aircraft. This was a significant blow to al-Qa’ida, as they lost one of their most stalwart and capable members. Moreover, it was a huge loss to bin Laden who lost not only his senior military commander, but also a close companion who had been with him since the very beginning of the al-Qa’ida organization." 
  39. ^ James, Michael S. ABC News, "Significant blow: Mohammed Atef's Death a Major Loss for al-Qaeda", November 17, 2001
  40. ^ Thomas, Evan & mark Hosenball, Newsweek, "The Opening Shot", November 11, 2002
  41. ^ CNN, US strikes 'leadership compound', November 27, 2001
  42. ^ Khan, M. Ismail. DAWN, US gunships land at Jalalabad airport, December 4, 2001
  43. ^ Murphy, Chuck. St. Petersburg Times, If he's dead, then why is he wanted?, January 3, 2002
  44. ^ CBC, Two Canadians among fugitive al-Qaeda members, January 26, 2002
  45. ^ Burke, Jason. The Guardian, The Secret Mastermind Behind the Bali Bombing, October 20, 2002
  46. ^ Abuza, Zachary. "Militant Islam in Southeast Asia", p. 157
  47. ^ Bell, Stewart. "The Martyr's Oath", 2005. p. 136-137
  48. ^ Cullison, Alan. Wall Street Journal, "Computer in Kabul holds chilling memos", December 31, 2001
  49. ^ Mir, Hamid, How Osama bin Laden Escaped death 4 times after 9/11, September 8, 2007
  50. ^ AFP, Iran holding Zawahiri, Abu Ghaith; al-Arabiya TV, June 28, 2003
  51. ^ Parry, Robert. Consortium News, How Bush's torture helped al-Qaeda, April 23, 2009
  52. ^ "Video is said to show bin Laden prepping for 9/11 attacks". CNN. September 8, 2006. Retrieved 2007-12-23. 
  53. ^ Office of Military Commissions (2007-12-20). "MC Form 458 Jan 2007 - Charges in United States v. Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza Al Darbi" (PDF). United States. pp. 1–6. Archived from the original on 2008-08-03. Retrieved 2007-12-23. 

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