Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership suffers another blow. Sheikh Abdullah Abu Azzam al-Iraqi, reportedly the organization’s number two in command, has been killed by Coalition forces in Baghdad during a raid after the Coalition received a tip on his location. That the Coalition found him indicates actionable intelligence was available, and that he was in Baghdad indicates he may have been leading the recent spate of attacks in the capital. Any documentation found in Azzam’s possession may greatly assist in uncovering further al Qaeda leaders and cells.
While the report indicates Azzam was the chief financier for al Qaeda in Iraq, he has a longer pedigree than just a moneyman. Azzam was a native Iraqi and a member of Zarqawi’s original terrorist group Jamaat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad. He was a ruthless al Qaeda commander in the Anbar province who was directly responsible for murdering government officials in the region during the summer of 2004.
When it was believed Zarqawi was on his deathbed last spring, intelligence officials suspected Azzam was one of several candidates to succeed Zarqawi. Of the nine likely candidates, three have been killed – Suleiman Khalid Darwish, another longtime Zarqawi aide and senior member of al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, or captured – Abu Talha, al Qaeda’s commander in Mosul and former leader of Ansar al-Islam. Talha’s network in northern Iraq has been all but dismantled.
Azzam was no small player in jihad in Iraq. He was an experienced and ruthless killer, who as a native Iraqi understood the culture and context of Iraq greater than the foreign jihadis in country. His contacts are likely to be top notch. He will need to be replaced, and his replacement will have less influence and experience than his predecessor. Destroying al Qaeda in Iraq is a laborious process, but one that can be accelerated by taking out vital leaders and middle managers.