US military denies al Qaeda leader al Masri is in custody

al-Masri.jpg

Abu Ayyub al Masri.

Less than 24 hours after a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced the capture of Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the US military denied al Masri has been captured. “Neither coalition forces nor Iraqi security forces detained or killed Abu Ayyub al-Masri,” Major Peggy Kageleiry, spokeswoman for Multinational Division North, told The Associated Press. “This guy had a similar name.” Al Masri was reported to have been captured in Mosul.

The report of al Masri’s capture was cause by a case of mistake identity, said Mohammed al Askari, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense. “We called the commander of Ninewa operations 10 times and every time he insisted it was Abu Hamza al-Muhajir [a pseudonym for al Masri] because when they caught him, they asked him whether his name was Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and he said yes,” Askari told the AP. The Ninewa operations commander “insisted that it was him, how can we deny him then.”

This is the third time the Iraqi security forces claimed al Masri was either killed or captured since 2007. The spokesman for the Interior Ministry in February 2007 claimed al Masri was wounded in a major clash between al Qaeda forces and the Awakening and police forces near the city of Balad. Al Masri was not captured, but Abu Abdullah al Majamaia, an aide to al Masri who also is believed to lead his security detail, was.

In May 2007, Sunni tribes reported al Masri was killed in a battle near Taji, just north of Baghdad. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior claimed its forces saw his body. Just days later, the Ministry of Interior said Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the supposed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, was reported killed in another battle in the town of Dhuluiya in Salahadin province. US forces confirmed Muharib Abdul Latif al Jubouri, al Qaeda in Iraq’s senior minister of information was killed, but neither al Masri nor Baghdadi were killed.

Al Qaeda regrouping in Mosul

The report of al Masri’s capture in Mosul highlights the importance of the northern city to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership is attempting to regroup in Mosul. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s last major ratline into Syria spans westward from Mosul into Tal Afar and the crossing point at Sinjar. The terror group is waging a brutal campaign to prevent the Iraqi Army and US forces from securing the province.

US and Iraqi forces have killed several key al Qaeda leaders in Mosul over the past several months. Fourteen of the top 30 al Qaeda operatives who have been killed or captured in the past three months were al Qaeda leaders in Mosul, including three al Qaeda leaders from Saudi Arabia.

Al Masri also has family ties in Mosul. In September 2007, Coalition forces captured Ali Fayyad Abuyd Ali in the northern city. Fayyad was a senior adviser to the terror group’s leaders, including al Masri. He also is al Masri’s father-in-law.

Background on al Masri’s rise to power and his Islamic State of Iraq

Al Masri entered Iraq in 2002 prior to the US invasion and established what is believed to be the first terror cell inside Baghdad. He is an experienced bomb maker, and built car bombs and trained other al Qaeda operatives in the techniques.

He was appointed the leader of the terror group in the summer of 2006 after US forces killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the infamous leader and founder of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Masri quickly worked to undo the failures of Zarqawi andattempted to unite the disparate Sunni insurgent groups and the Sunni tribes in the Sunni-dominated province. In a letter to the deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, urged Zarqawi to “Iraqify the insurgency,” but al Masri ignored the message.

A close confidant of Zawahiri, al Masri was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the group that folded into al Qaeda under Zawahiri’s leadership. Egyptian Islamic Jihad is a core element of al Qaeda and includes many former members of the Egyptian military.

Al Masri is officially listed as the minister of defense for the Islamic State of Iraq, according to a press release put out by the terror group in April 2007. But over the summer of 2007, it became known the Islamic State of Iraq was the invention of al Masri, who serves as the emir, or leader, of the group. Baghdadi is actually a fictional character played by an Iraqi actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima. This information was revealed after the capture of Abu Muhammad al Mashadani, the former minister of information for the Islamic State of Iraq. Recently, an Iraqi police leader in Hadithah claimed Baghdadi was actually a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s Army.

Al Qaeda established the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006 to put an Iraqi face on al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and unite the Sunni disparate elements of the insurgency. Al Qaeda claimed the Islamic State of Iraq comprises “Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahadin, Ninewa, and … other parts of the governorate of Babel.” The declaration of the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq followed the creation of the “Mutayibeen Coalition,” which included six Anbar tribes, as well as three smaller insurgent groups. In mid-April 2007, Baghdadi named the ministers of the cabinet of the rump 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.

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13 Comments

  • mjr007 says:

    Oops!!!
    Bummer.

  • Matthew says:

    I’m sure it was an honest mistake, but after three times perhaps it’s time that the Iraqi military wait until confirmation. Stuff like this has got to be giving the military headaches for such incidents give al Qaeda leaders the opportunity to taunt the military about not being able to capture them. We know that isn’t true, but today’s war isn’t just a battlefield war – it’s an information based war. The world will know more about this mistake than about the 50 or so al Qaeda killed or captured by military forces in the past month or so alone.
    It’s sad, but gotta deal with the deck given to you.

  • ST333 says:

    I wonder if we were able to capitalize on this golden SIGINT opportunity after that announcement went public. Assuming our military leadership and our Intel Community was skeptical considering past erroneous claims, I’d be guessing the big ears in the sky perked up thinking the higher ups in AQ and AQI were on the phones trying to confirm this info as well. Maybe someone stayed online or on the phone too long? I guess if we round up some AQ leadership in the next few days we’ll know. Just a thought…or a hope

  • There is a hidden nugget of good news here. This incident was believable. That is an indicator of how far the IP have come. It seemed credible that the Iraqi Police in Mosul could have captured this piece of garbage.
    Contrast that with 2 years ago when we were happy if 25% of a police force simply showed up to work with a uniform of some type and had not sold their Glocks or traded them away for some magic beans.

  • KnightHawk says:

    ST333 – Perhaps that was the whole point of the “mistaken” release, to get people chatting and meeting to talk about it, especially if they feel they are getting closer to him. Just a thought.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/09/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • Steve-o says:

    My take is that this was a case of mistaken ID coupled with an Iraqi govt/military that is not leak-proof (quite the opposite), which is to be expected. We just have to deal with that.

  • Batman says:

    Mosul is up there awfully close to Kurdish territory. Why can’t the Peshmerga be utilized to take care of AQ if they are as fantastic as they are made out to be?

  • Matthew says:

    I think the Pershmega are doing their jobs – staying out of Sunni-dominated Mosul, but watching the Kurdish border/areas to make sure no al Qaeda slips outside of Mosul into their direction to hide. They are the anvil to the Iraqi and U.S. military’s hammer.

  • Freedom Now says:

    Batman,
    Mosul is an ethnically mixed city and there is tension between the Sunni Arab settlers and the resentful Kurdish population.
    A better example of the prowess of the Kurdish Peshmerga would be the security of the provinces that they control.

  • @thepointyend says:

    Batman –
    As Bill reported during his embed in March, many of the soldiers and officers of the 2nd Iraqi Army Division are former Peshmerga, so those particular skills are being employed effectively in Mosul every day. But as both Matthew and Freedom Now said, there are political reasons for keeping the Pesh out of the city.

    The resettled Sunni Arabs who make up a majority of the city’s residents, fear/resent encroachment by the Kurds almost as much as they fear AQI – in fact, some fear it more, hence AQI’s base of support here. Fortunately, even in Mosul the Sunni Arab population is starting to see the cost of doing business with such a murderous band of thugs.

    Almost all of AQI’s active support in the city falls in the realm of former Ba’athists still looking to regain power. Both elements are quick to blame their own activities, such as the Zanjili bombing in January, on a perceived Pesh-dominated Iraqi Army in order to gain the support of the people, or at least drive a wedge between the Sunni majority, the Kurdish minority, and the ISF.

    It is disappointing that we’ve once again been mistaken about al Masri, but given that every muldoon here is known by three or four different names, it is not that surprising.

  • Marlin says:

    There are reports coming out now about an impending Iraqi Army initiative, Operation Lion’s Roar, in Mosul.

    The Iraqi Army has launched a major operation in the northern city of Mosul against al-Qaeda and its allies.
    Around 10,000 Sunni tribesmen from Mosul who are loyal to the government are taking part in the operation with an armoured brigade of Iraqi troops.
    Reinforcements are due to move into the area in the coming days for what is being called Operation Lion’s Roar.
    A curfew is already in effect in the city and judges have issued a number of arrest warrants for al-Qaeda leaders.

    BBC: Iraqi army in Mosul offensive

  • Marlin says:

    Actually, progress is already being made it would seem.

    He explained that the security operation to track down al-Qaeda fighters in the province was officially announced on Saturday, but it was practically started before that.
    “We reached 92 targets in different places in Mosul, 60 of them wanted by security forces, with the cooperation of the city’s residents,” Lieutenant General Riad Jalal Tawfiq said in a press conference on Saturday afternoon, at Ninewa operations command headquarter.
    “The military operation to track down al-Qaeda fighters in Ninewa province was started a while ago, but we announced its commencement on Saturday at 6 a.m.,” he added.
    Earlier on Saturday, Ninewa security operations commander said that the military operation to track down gunmen of al-Qaeda network in the province of Ninewa has started after “huge” military reinforcements arrived from the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
    […]
    A source in Mosul city police had said on Friday that senior military officials have arrived in the city from Baghdad leading massive forces to take part in the military operation planned in Mosul to track down members of al-Qaeda.
    “The officials were the undersecretaries and general directors of the interior. Also, other field commanders and military divisions are reportedly expected in the city on Saturday,” the source said.

    Aswat al-Iraq: 92 targets achieved during operations’ first day – Ninewa operations commander

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