Who is Abu Omar al Baghdadi?
Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi, who is better known as Abu Omar al Baghdadi. Image from Talisman's Gate via al Arabiya.
The identity of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of al Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq, has been called into question after the US military released letters written by senior al Qaeda leaders discussing the state of Iraq and the viability of the terror group's leadership.
The letters, found on the body of al Qaeda in Iraq's information minister after a shootout in Baghdad, clearly refer to Baghdadi, the pseudonym for the leader of al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq. Baghdadi is greeted in several of the letters, and Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-in-command, wrote a letter to Baghdadi to provide advice and inquire on the state of the insurgency.
Baghdadi's true identity has been the source of controversy since the establishment of the Islamic State in 2006. The appointment of Baghdadi as the leader of the Islamic State caused rifts within the Sunni insurgency. Tribal leaders and Iraqi Salafist groups objected to the creation of the Islamic State and the appointment of an anonymous leader.
The US military dropped a bombshell in July 2007 when it stated Baghdadi was in fact a fictitious person created by Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Baghdadi was played by an Iraqi actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima, the military stated. This was confirmed after the capture and interrogation of Khalid Abdul Fatah Da'ud Mahmud Al Mashadani, al Qaeda's media emir at the time.
"Abu Omar al Baghdadi" from an Islamic State of Iraq propaganda videotape.
The debate over Baghdadi's identity died down after the July 2007 announcement. Baghdadi continued to release video and audiotapes. But Baghdadi refused to show his face, and the voice continued to match Naima's, a senior US military intelligence official and a senior US military officer told The Long War Journal.
The US military's claim that Baghdadi is a fictitious character was challenged in May of this year after Haditha's police chief identified the man leading al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq.
The Haditha police chief said Baghdadi's real identity is Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi. "He was an officer in the security services and was dismissed from the army because of his extremism," the police chief told al Arabiya television.
Zawi is "a retired police officer from the Haditha Police Department, who worked after retirement as a oil heater repairman in the Anbar town of Haqlaniyah," according to Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi scholar at the Hudson Institute wrote in May on his website, Talisman's Gate. Zawi is able to use the "Baghdadi" pseudonym as he maintains a residence in the Ghazaliya neighborhood in Baghdad.
The US military believes al Qaeda quickly backfilled the position of Baghdadi after the Naima charade was disclosed last year.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq filled in the position with a real individual after Multinational Forces Iraq revealed that Abdullah al Naima was a hired actor," a senior US military intelligence source told The Long War Journal on the condition of anonymity. The sources confirmed that Zawi is now Baghdadi.
"Hamid al Zawi was one of the few senior al Qaeda in Iraq leaders who could meet the criteria of being descended from Hussein that was a key part of Baghdadi's biography," the military official said. Tracing lineage back to Hussein Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, is a requirement for leadership of the Islamic State.