Abu Ayyub al-Masri, from a video found last year. Click to view.
Iraqis back off the claim, U.S. denies he is in custody, as does al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq
Last evening’s reports of the capture of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri appear to be incorrect. Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, initially reported al-Masri was wounded in a gunfight, and an aide was killed while trying to enter the city of Balad. Khalaf has since pulled back from this claim, while the deputy interior minister said the information could not be confirmed, as did the U.S. military. “We do not believe that he was either killed or wounded last night,” said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a MNF-Iraq spokesman.
The Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq’s political front, has also denied that al-Masri was wounded or captured in an engagement [as an aside, this demonstrates the organization’s quick reaction time to the news cycle]. “The fabrication of the [Iraqi] government of such news – which was denied even by their American masters – is proof of their bankruptcy and confusion, may Allah fight them,” said the al Qaeda mouthpiece in an Internet posting, according to the SITE Institute.
Several questions remain about the episode: what, if anything, did happen outside of Balad? Was a senior al Qaeda leader detained? Was this an al-Masri body double? Richard Miniter reported there was a DNA test performed on the suspect wounded in the skirmish, indicating an event actually took place [although we dispute the claim a DNA test can be performed in such a rapid time frame].
The Associated Press provided some further information on the identity of the senior al-Masri aide captured on February 9th. “An Iraqi army officer also said al-Masri’s aide, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, had been detained on Feb. 9 and remained in custody in a jail near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad,” noted the AP. As we noted last evening, al-Majemaai (or al-Majamiai) may be the chief of al-Masri’s security detail. If al-Majemaai is in custody and is indeed al-Masri’s chief of security, the Coalition and Task Force 145 will have access to critical information on al-Masri’s personal security habits, travel details, safe houses and contacts. This may partially explain the interior ministry spokesman’s excitement over the incident in Balad.