Maybe it’s really the smoke monster from ABC’s Lost.
Monday afternoon in the White House briefing room, Vice President Joe Biden lauded reports that “early in the morning, October 18th, Iraqi security forces killed the two most senior leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq during a series of joint security operations.”
Biden apparently meant to say April 18th, but his confusion regarding the fate of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is understandable, considering, as the Associated Press notes, “Past Iraqi claims to have captured or killed al-Baghdadi have turned out to be wrong, and the Islamic State of Iraq has issued at least two denials of his capture.”
Al-Baghdadi was so elusive that at times U.S. officials also have questioned whether he was a real person or merely a composite of a terrorist that the ISI invented to bolster its threats. The U.S. military once even asserted that audio recordings in the name of a fictitious al-Baghdadi were in fact read by someone else.
A senior operative for al Qaeda in Iraq who was caught this month has told his U.S. military interrogators a prominent al Qaeda-led group is just a front and its leader fictitious, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner told a news conference that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, which was purportedly set up last year, did not exist.
The Islamic State of Iraq was established to try to put an Iraqi face on what is a foreign-driven network, Bergner said. The name Baghdadi means the person hails from the Iraqi capital.
Bergner said the information came from an operative called Khalid al-Mashadani who was caught on July 4 and who he said was an intermediary to Osama bin Laden.
But Bergner said Mashadani and Masri had co-founded a “virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 as a new Iraqi pseudonym for AQI”.
“To further this myth, Masri created a fictional head of the Islamic State of Iraq known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi,” he said.
“To make al-Baghdadi appear credible, al-Masri swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi and pledged to obey him, which is essentially pledging allegiance to himself since he knew Baghdadi was fictitious and a creation of his own,” he said.
“The rank and file Iraqis in AQI believe they are following the Iraqi al-Baghdadi. But all the while they have been following the orders of the Egyptian Abu Ayyab al-Masri.”
A July of 2007 LA Times story added, “In March, he was declared captured. In May, he was declared killed, and his purported corpse was displayed on state-run TV. But Wednesday, Omar al-Baghdadi, the supposed leader of an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Iraq, was declared nonexistent by U.S. military officials, who say he is a fictional character created to give an Iraqi face to a foreign-run terror group.”
According to Bergner, Mashadani helped create Islamic State of Iraq as a “virtual organization” that is essentially a pseudonym for al-Qaida in Iraq, another group that claims ties to al-Qaida. The front organization was aimed at making Iraqis believe that al-Qaida in Iraq is a nationalistic group, even though it is led by an Egyptian and has few Iraqis among its leaders, Bergner told a news conference.
“The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest effort by al-Qaida to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people,” he said.
Islamic State of Iraq had been widely described as an umbrella organization made up of several insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq.
There was no way to confirm the military’s claim, which comes at a time of heightened pressure on the White House to justify keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Critics of the Bush administration say he has been trying to provide that justification by linking the broader-based al-Qaida to the conflict in Iraq, even though Bin Laden’s organization had no substantial presence here until after the U.S. invasion of March 2003.
“The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people” in Iraq, President Bush said Tuesday.
“OMG! They should wait till Friday the 13th to announce this,” a Democratic Underground reader mocks. “The guy has more lives than Jason.”
In September of 2008, military blogger Bill Roggio wrote,
The US military dropped a bombshell in July 2007 when it stated Baghdadi was in fact a fictitious person created by Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. 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 Abdul Fatah DaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ud Mahmud Al Mashadani, al Qaeda’s media emir at the time.
The debate over Baghdadi’s identity died down after the July 2007 announcement. Baghdadi continued to release video and audiotapes. But Baghdadi refused to show his face, and the voice continued to match Naima’s, a senior US military intelligence official and a senior US military officer told The Long War Journal.
The US military’s claim that Baghdadi is a fictitious character was challenged in May of this year after Haditha’s police chief identified the man leading al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq.
The Haditha police chief said Baghdadi’s real identity is Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi. “He was an officer in the security services and was dismissed from the army because of his extremism,” the police chief told al Arabiya television.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq filled in the position with a real individual after Multinational Forces Iraq revealed that Abdullah al Naima was a hired actor,” a senior US military intelligence source told The Long War Journal on the condition of anonymity. The sources confirmed that Zawi is now Baghdadi.
Two years ago, the spokesman for the Iraqi Sunni jihad organization Hamas-Iraq, Ahmad Salah Al-Din told a Qatari paper that Al-Masri was the real leader of AQI.
“Salah Al-Din claimed that Al-Qaeda’s real commander [in Iraq] was Abu Ayub Al-Masri, and that [Abu ‘Omar] Al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi figure to whom many [words and deeds] are attributed solely to create the impression that [Al-Qaeda is a genuinely] Iraqi organization. He said that [Abu Ayub] Al-Masri had been rescued from arrest by an Arab intelligence apparatus using a diplomatic vehicle belonging to the Iranian Embassy… Salah Al-Din explained that as of late, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had considerably diminished in size – so much so that today it can be said to constitute 15 percent of what it was a year ago, [and that therefore, even] if Al-Qaeda has begun launching suicide operations, these [operations] are not proof of its strength…'”
And just like Al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi government has declared that Al-Masri was killed multiple times in the past, and in 2007, “An Iraqi intelligence report suggested that al-Masri had fallen foul of a growing feud between his foreign-led al-Qaeda cells and home-grown Sunni insurgents,” a British newspaper reported.
Further excerpts from Biden’s address:
The former leaders of AQI, the ones who plotted, planned and executed terror attacks against the Iraqis in recent past as well as against Americans. Their deaths are potentially devastating blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq. But equally important in my view is this action demonstrates the improved security strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis led this operation and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior aqi leader last month. In short, the Iraqis have taken the lead in securing Iraq and its citizens by taking out these individuals. This counterterrorism operation is the culmination of a lot of cooperation and very hard work by Iraqi and U.S. forces to degrade AQI over the past several months and years.
Biden took no questions from the press after his brief statement.
This video is from The White House, broadcast April 19, 2010.