of Al Qaeda group
in Iraq was fictional, U.S. military says
By Michael R. Gordon
Published: July 18,
BAGHDAD: For more than
a year, the leader of one the most notorious
insurgent groups in Iraq was said to be a mysterious Iraqi
Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi.
As the titular head of
the Islamic State in Iraq, an organization
publicly backed by Al Qaeda, Baghdadi issued a steady stream of
incendiary pronouncements. Despite claims by Iraqi officials that he
had been killed in May, Baghdadi appeared to have persevered unscathed.
On Wednesday, a senior
American military spokesman provided a new
explanation for Baghdadi's ability to escape attack: He never existed.
Kevin Bergner, the chief American military spokesman,
said the elusive Baghdadi was actually a fictional character whose
audio-taped declarations were provided by an elderly actor named Abu
The ruse, Bergner
said, was devised by Abu Ayub al-Masri, the
Egyptian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was trying to mask
the dominant role that foreigners play in that insurgent organization.
The ploy was to invent
Baghdadi, a figure whose very name establishes
his Iraqi pedigree, install him as the head of a front organization
called the Islamic State of Iraq and then arrange for Masri to swear
allegiance to him. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, sought
to reinforce the deception by referring to Baghdadi in his video and
The evidence for the
American assertions, Bergner announced at a news
briefing, was provided by an Iraqi insurgent: Khalid Abdul Fatah Daud
Mahmud al-Mashadani, who was said to have been captured by American
forces in Mosul on July 4.
According to Bergner,
Mashadani is the most senior Iraqi operative in
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. He got his start in the Ansar al-Sunna
insurgent group before joining Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia more than two
years ago, and became the group's "media emir" for all of Iraq. Bergner
said that Mashadani was also an intermediary between Masri in Iraq and
bin Laden and Zawahiri, whom the Americans assert support and guide
their Iraqi affiliate.
that al-Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he
surrounds himself, not Iraqis, made the operational decisions" for Al
Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Bergner said.
The struggle between
the American military and Qaeda affiliate in Iraq
is political as well as military. And one purpose of the briefing
Wednesday seemed to be to rattle the 90 percent of the group's
adherents who are believed to be Iraqi by suggesting that they are
doing the bidding of foreigners.
An important element
of the American strategy is to drive a wedge
between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, other insurgent groups and the Sunni
Al Qaeda in
Mesopotamia, for its part, has engaged in its own form of
psychological warfare. The Islamic State of Iraq recently issued two
videos that were said to show an attack in Diyala Province on an
American Bradley vehicle with a roadside bomb, as well as an assault on
an Iraqi military checkpoint.
The recent American
operation to clear western Baquba, the provincial
capital of Diyala, of Qaeda fighters was dubbed Arrowhead Ripper. In a
statement, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed that "the arrows have been
returned to the enemy like boomerangs," according to Site Institute,
which monitors international terrorist groups.
Bruce Riedel, a former
CIA official and a Middle East expert, said that
experts had long wondered whether Baghdadi actually existed. "There has
been a question mark about this," he said.
suggested that the disclosures made Wednesday might
not be the final word on Baghdadi and the leaders of Al Qaeda in
Mesopotamia. Even Mashadani's assertions, Riedel said, might be a cover
story to protect a leader who does in fact exist.
"First, they say we
have killed him," Riedel said, referring to the
statements by some Iraqi government officials. "Then we heard him after
his death and now they are saying he never existed. That suggests that
our intelligence on Al Qaeda in Iraq is not what we want it to be."
spokesmen insist they have gotten to the truth on
Baghdadi. Mashadani, they say, provided his account because he resented
the role of foreign leaders in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They say he has
not repudiated the organization.
While the American
military says that senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan
provide guidance, general direction and support for Al Qaeda in
Mesopotamia, they did not provide any examples of a specific raid or
operation that was ordered by Pakistan-based leaders of Al Qaeda.
National Intelligence Estimate on terrorist threats to
the United States homeland, which was made public in Washington on
Tuesday, suggested that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia draws support from Al
Qaeda leaders in Pakistan but also has some autonomy. It described Al
Qaeda in Mesopotamia as "an affiliate."
"We assess that Al
Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts
and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq, its most visible and capable
affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack
In the latest violence
in Iraq, a series of roadside bombs exploded
early Wednesday in separate areas of east Baghdad, killing 11 people
and wounding more than a dozen, the police said, according to The
Associated Press. The U.S. military reported that three more American
soldiers had died in action in the Iraqi capital.
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