Capture and interrogation of senior al Qaeda leader highlights al Qaeda control; Abu Omar al-Baghdadi a fictitious leader
U.S. Special Operations Forces scored a major victory against al Qaeda in Iraq’s senior leadership and gained valuable insight on the al Qaeda creation known as the Islamic State of Iraq. On July 4, Coalition forces captured Khalid Abdul Fatah Da’ud Mahmud Al Mashadani, a senior al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State of Iraq leader and close associate of Abu Ayyub al Masri, al Qaeda’s commander. Mashadani, also known as Abu Shahed, was captured in Mosul and is thought by the U.S. military to be the most senior Iraqi-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). During Mashadani’s interrogation, the U.S. confirmed the Islamic State of Iraq is an al Qaeda front and that its leader does not really exist.
Mashadani has a long pedigree in Iraq’s Salafist terror networks, and had direct contact with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. “Mashadani was a leader in the Ansar Al Sunna terrorist group before joining AQI two and half years ago,” Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said in a press briefing. “He served as the al Qaeda Media Emir for Baghdad and then was appointed the Media Emir for all of Iraq, serving as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. In fact, communication between senior al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri went through Mashadani.”
During interrogations, Mashadani admitted that the Islamic State of Iraq was merely a puppet front group established by al Qaeda in order to put an Iraqi face on the insurgency. Mashadani cofounded the Islamic State of Iraq with al-Masri in 2006. “The Islamic State of Iraq is a ‘front’ organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within AQI in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of AQI,” said Brig. Gen Bergner.
But not only is the Islamic State of Iraq a contrived entity, its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, is as well. “To further this myth [of the Islamic State of Iraq], al Masri created a fictional political head of ISI known as Omar al-Baghdadi,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. Al-Baghdadi is actually played by an actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima, and al Masri “maintains exclusive control over al Naima as he acts the part of the fictitious al-Baghdadi character.”
Al Masri then swore allegiance to al Baghdadi “which was essentially swearing allegiance to himself, since he knew that Baghdadi was fictitious and totally his own creation,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. “The rank and file Iraqis in AQI believed they are following the Iraqi al-Baghdadi but all the while they have actually been following the orders of the Egyptian Abu ‘Ayyub al- Masri.”
Mashadani said the domestic insurgents groups recognize that al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq are fronts. “The idea of al-Baghdadi is very weak now because other insurgent groups have realized that the concept of al-Baghdadi is controlled by the al Qaeda foreign fighters in Iraq,” said Mashadani to his interrogators.
Mashadani stated that al Qaeda in Iraq is operationally controlled by foreign fighters, not Iraqi insurgents. “Mashadani confirms that al Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he surrounds himself, not Iraqis, make the operational decisions for AQI,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. “According to Mashadani, in fact, al Masri increasingly relies only on foreigners, who make up the majority of the leadership of AQI. He does not seek or trust the advice of Iraqis in the organization.”
Coalition operations and the turning of Sunni insurgent groups have caused al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership to further distrust Iraqi members of al Qaeda. “Al-Masri has increasingly become more isolated and paranoid, especially of the Iraqis within AQI, as our operations have killed or captured additional AQI leaders,” Brig. Gen. Bergner said, based on statements made by Mashadani.
The Coalition concedes the Iraqi insurgency is largely made up of Iraqis. “Although the rank and file are largely Iraqi, the senior leadership of AQI, as we have previously stated, is mostly foreign,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. However al Qaeda’s control of the leadership via its foreign operatives, its vast resources in cash, and its campaign of co-opting or decapitating the Iraqi leadership of domestic insurgent groups has allowed the terror group to direct the Islamic State of Iraq. “Al Masri started overpowering us and acted of his own accord,” Mashadani said. “Al Masri controlled the distribution of funding and controlled the content of ISI publications.”
The contrived nature of the Islamic State of Iraq, the foreign control, and the fictitious identity of its leader explains why numerous insurgent groups, including the Islamic Army of Iraq and Ansar al Sunnah, were against joining the group. Mishan al-Jabouri, a leader in the Islamic Army of Iraq and the proprietor of Al Zawraa, an insurgent television channel, openly castigated the Islamic State for killing its leadership, attempting to impose foreign control, and for hiding the true identity of its leader.
Last spring, the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahideen Army, and Ansar al Sunnah formed an alliance called Reform and Jihad Front. These groups opposed al Qaeda’s establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq for ideological reasons. Al Qaeda in Iraq targeted the leaders of the Reform and Jihad Front, killing many of them. Since then, Ansar al Sunnah and large elements of the ranks of the Islamic Army in Iraq have been absorbed into al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq, and the Reform and Jihad Front has withered on the vine.
Mashadani’s picture of the Islamic State of Iraq and information on the “identity” of Abu Omar al Baghdadi clears up some questions reports of Baghdadi’s capture earlier this year. In the spring there were several reports of the capture of al Baghdadi in Mosul and Salahadin province. In one raid, it turned out Muharib Abdul Latif al-Jubouri, the spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq, was captured. Latif was one of the two senior leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.