Iraqi and US forces dealt al Qaeda in Iraq a major blow last week during a raid in Mosul that killed the terror group’s top facilitator, who was based out of Syria.
The joint US and Iraqi special operations team killed Abu Khalaf, al Qaeda in Iraq’s seniormost foreign fighter facilitator, during an operation on Jan. 22. Khalaf was killed after he “attacked a security-team member participating in a warranted operation,” a US Forces- Iraq press release stated.
The US military said Khalaf’s identity was confirmed using “multiple sources, including fingerprint matches.”
Khalaf, whose real name is Sa’ad Uwayyid ‘Ubayd Mu’jil al Shammari, was placed on the US Treasury Department’s terrorist sanctions list in May 2009 and was identified as al Qaeda in Iraq’s top facilitator, who operated from Syria.
Khalaf and a cadre of his aides entered Mosul sometime last fall to lead al Qaeda’s terror operations, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
“Khalaf was responsible for coordinating recent suicide attacks in Baghdad and Anbar,” the official said. There have been five mass-casualty suicide attacks in Baghdad since August 2009, including two attacks this week, as well as several suicide attacks in Ramadi.
“Khalaf was perhaps the most dangerous AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] facilitator in Iraq,” the official said. His death “leaves a void in AQI hierarchy.”
US and Iraqi intelligence began to draw a bead on Khalaf’s location after Iraqi forces broke up a major suicide bombing operation on Jan. 12. Four suicide bombers and hundreds of pounds of explosives were seized during the raid, as well as information that pointed to Khalaf’s location.
More intelligence on Khalaf was gathered after Iraqi security forces detained Ali Hussein Alwan al Azawi, a senior al Qaeda in Iraq operative who was involved in the first major suicide attack in the capital in the summer of 2003, the official said. That suicide attack killed 22 United Nations employees, including special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. The attack led to the United Nations’ withdrawal from Iraq.
Khalaf is the second major al Qaeda leader killed in Mosul this month. On Jan. 5, US forces killed Abu Na’im al Afri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s northern operations. Like Khalaf, Afri also was killed during a joint US and Iraqi raid. In that raid, the joint forces also detained Al Qaeda in Iraq’s administrative emir, the advisor to the sharia emir, and the detainee affairs emir.
Abu Khalaf and al Qaeda’s operations in Syria
Khalaf was an Iraqi member of al Qaeda who operated from inside Syria. He was known to recruit suicide bombers from North Africa and aid in setting up their travel arrangements into Syria and ultimately Iraq.
Khalaf also helped al Qaeda suicide bombers based in the Persian Gulf region travel the Levant to conduct suicide attacks. The Levant consists of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea and includes Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. Before his death, US intelligence indicated that Khalaf operated in Tal Hamis in Syria, and in Tal Wardan and the ‘Awinat village in the Rabiah district in northwestern Iraq.
Syria has long supported or looked the other way as al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents used the country as a transit point and safe haven for fighters entering western Iraq. More than 90 percent of the suicide bombers who have entered Iraq since the insurgency began in 2003 have entered Iraq via Syria.
Al Qaeda’s Syrian network is thought to have suffered a setback as the US implemented a counterinsurgency program in 2007, and a covert operation in Syria 2008 targeted and killed a senior member of al Qaeda facilitation network. An estimated 120-plus foreign fighters per month are thought to have entered Iraq from Syria at the peak of the foreign-fighter influx, in 2007. The number is now estimated to be in the single digits.
In October 2008, the US sent a strong message to Syria when it launched the first recorded cross-border strike inside Syria since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nine terrorists were reported killed after US commandos dropped from helicopters conducted a raid in eastern Syria. The target was Abu Ghadiya, Khalaf’s predecessor and a senior al Qaeda leader who had been in charge of the Syrian facilitation network since 2005. Ghadiya and his staff were killed in the attack.
But there is concern that al Qaeda’s Syrian network is being rejuvenated. US intelligence officials fear that eastern Syria is becoming a terrorist haven.
Al Qaeda has refocused its efforts to build an infrastructure in eastern Syria after its network in Iraq was decimated by Iraqi and US security forces from 2007 to 2009, and now the organization is partnering with former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Last summer, al Qaeda’s central leadership reportedly sent Sheikh Issa al Masri to lead al Qaeda’s efforts in Syria. Sheikh Issa is a senior Egyptian cleric and ideologue who has helped the terror group gain a foothold in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan over the past decade.