Predator missile strike? Delta Force hit-and-run deep behind enemy lines? Nope. Better:

The senior al Qaida operative who helped direct the 2005 London subway bombings and a plot to blow up commercial airliners over the Atlantic Ocean has died in Pakistan’s tribal region, U.S. counter terrorism officials said Tuesday.

The senior militant, an Egyptian who used the nom de guerre Abu Ubaida al-Masri, recently succumbed to hepatitis, they said.

Never heard of him? Most people haven’t. The Times devoted a few paragraphs to him in a story last May about the next generation of Al Qaeda leadership, but I can’t even find a photo of him online. Which makes it remarkably coincidental that this announcement should come a scant six days after the LA Times published a long profile. He’s been a big dog for the past three years, supposedly promoted from Afghan operations to planning attacks on the west after a previous international commander was killed in 2005. His first score was as an assistant to Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi — whose name you should know — in training the London bombers before allegedly becoming “chief of external operations” himself. His baby? The skybomb plot:

Masri had embarked on his biggest task yet: a mega-project intended to match the carnage of the Sept. 11 attacks by blowing up airplanes en route from Britain to the United States. Half a dozen British militants traveled to Pakistan for training.

“He was involved in recruiting, overseeing the lesson plan, so to speak,” the U.S. anti-terrorism official said.

The innovative techniques required special instruction. Masri envisioned his operatives injecting the liquid explosives, a highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide mix, with a syringe into the false bottoms of innocuous containers such as sports drinks, sneaking the components aboard and assembling bombs after takeoff.

“The airline plot is his thing,” a Western intelligence official said. “And it is a major plot.”

We’ve been trying to kill him for years via missile, most famously in the madrassa bombing in October 2006 that almost got Zawahiri and most recently (perhaps) in an airstrike in South Waziristan in February that killed upwards of 13 AQ operatives including “an Al Qaeda fugitive from Egypt,” where al-Masri was from. Roggio speculated at the time that he might have been the man in question. Given this news, I wonder.

Spend five minutes on the Times piece, though, as it includes some unusual passages about the degradation of AQ’s capabilities over the last six years. It’s an article of absolute faith among most of the media that they’re as strong as they’re ever been post-9/11 and are only getting stronger; the fact that the chief of external operations was allegedly reduced to personally training recruits in the art of bombmaking suggests otherwise.