Leader of Al Qaeda group in Iraq was fictional, U.S. military says
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.
Brigadier General 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 Adullah al-Naima.
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 Internet statements.
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.
"Mashadani confirms 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 population.
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.
Nonetheless, Riedel 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."
American military 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.
An unclassified 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 the homeland."
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.