Iraq’s Prime Minister and the US military confirmed that al Qaeda in Iraq’s top two leaders have been killed during a raid in a remote region in the western province of Anbar.
“Abu Ayyub al Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al Muhajir, Abu Omar al Baghdadi and a number of al Qaeda leaders in Iraq were killed during a security operation in al Thar Thar region in Anbar,” Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad, according to Voices of Iraq.
US Forces Iraq, the US military command in Baghdad, confirmed the report in a press release.
“A series of Iraqi led joint operations conducted over the last week resulted in the Iraqi Forces with US support executing a nighttime raid on the AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] leaders’ safehouse,” the press release stated. “The joint security team identified both AQI members, and the terrorists were killed after engaging the security team. Additionally, Masri’s assistant along with the son of al-Baghdadi who were also involved in terrorist activities were killed.”
During the operation, one US soldier was killed in a helicopter crash, and 16 al Qaeda associates were detained.
The two top leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq were killed in the Thar Thar region, an area that has served as an al Qaeda haven in the past. Al Qaeda has operated training camps and safe havens in the desert region, which is strategically located near Baghdad, Samarra, Balad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
Al Masri was hand picked by Ayman al Zawahiri to take control of al Qaeda in Iraq after its founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was killed in a US airstrike in Baqubah in June 2006. Al Masri was one of Zawahiri’s top aides and severed as a master bomb maker and terror coordinator under Zarqawi.
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 was 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.
Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi, who was better known as Abu Omar al Baghdadi. Image from Talisman’s Gate via al Arabiya.
Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, and there has been much controversy over his identity over the years. In 2007 the US military said Baghdadi was a fictitious leader created by al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq was created in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on al Qaeda’s foreign-led movement and unite the disparate Sunni Islamist and insurgent groups.
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 al Mashadani, then al Qaeda’s media emir. Al Qaeda’s appointment of an anonymous caliph, or leader, caused rifts in the Sunni insurgency, and along with al Qaeda’s brutal tactics, turned many tribes and insurgent groups away from the terror organization.
The US military’s claim that Baghdadi was a fictitious character was challenged in May of 2008 after Haditha’s police chief identified Baghdadi as Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi, a former officer who was “dismissed from the army because of his extremism.”
The US military believes that al Qaeda quickly backfilled the position of Baghdadi after the Naima charade was disclosed last year. The move was made to stem any embarrassment in having al Qaeda’s appointed caliph of Iraq being played by an actor.
The deaths of al Masri and Baghdadi are a major blow to al Qaeda in Iraq, as the terror group has suffered major losses in its leadership network over the past four months. Since January, the US has picked apart the top leaders of al Qaeda’s northern network. Among those killed or captured are the last two emirs, or leaders, of the northern Iraq network, the last two emirs of Mosul, the top facilitator operating in the Iraq-Syria border areas, and other senior members of the network [see LWJ report, “Iraqi forces capture two senior al Qaeda leaders in Mosul,” for the full list].
General Ray Odierno, the commander of US Forces Iraq, said the killing of al Masri and Baghdadi “is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaada in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”
“The Government of Iraq intelligence services and security forces supported by US intelligence and special operations forces have over the last several months continued to degrade AQI,” Odierno said in the press release. “There is still work to do but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists.”
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.