Has killing two of its leaders crippled al Qaida in Iraq?

Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2010 

BAGHDAD — Iraqi and U.S. forces killed two top terrorists Sunday in northern Iraq, but whether the killings would deal a fatal blow to al Qaida in Iraq remained unclear.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said Monday that a rocket attack killed Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq, and Abu Ayoub al Masri, an Egyptian thought to have ties to the international al Qaida leadership.

Baghdadi is thought to be a pseudonym for Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al Zawi, an ex-Iraqi Army officer who's said to have come from a number of different places, including Haditha in Iraq's predominantly Sunni Anbar province. "Al Baghdadi" means "from Baghdad." However, while it appeared clear that one of the dead men was Zawi, some counterterrorism analysts remain unsure that Zawi was Baghdadi, and even whether such a person exists.

Baghdadi's before and after photos

Moreover, even if Baghdadi was killed, a recent study by a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, Jenna Jordan, published this month in the journal Security Studies, concluded that killing the leaders of terrorist groups, particularly religious ones, "is not an effective counterterrorism strategy."

In fact, Jordan found: "Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. Decapitation is actually counterproductive, particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations."

A U.S. soldier was killed in Sunday's operation and three others were wounded when their helicopter crashed during the overnight raid. The American military had said the aircraft wasn't downed by enemy fire, and it was investigating the cause of the crash.

Vice President Joe Biden Monday called the killings of Baghdadi and Masri "potentially devastating blows" to al Qaida in Iraq. "But equally important, in my view," he added, "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."

"The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," said Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Four years ago, then-President George W. Bush said the killing of a previous al Qaida in Iraq leader, Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi, had dealt a "severe blow" to the group, but it's shown recently that it's still capable of carrying out complex, high-profile operations such as a series of bombings against embassies this month.

Maliki offered these images as proof of Masri's death.

Iraqi authorities announced last year that they'd killed Baghdadi, a claim that was never verified by the U.S. military, which said in the past that Baghdadi might be a composite figure used to put an Iraqi face on al Qaida's operations in Iraq.

Prime Minister Maliki said Monday that insurgents had attributed the name to various fighters over the years to sow confusion among U.S. and Iraqi forces, but that the man killed today was the "original" Baghdadi.

Adding to the uncertainty, Maliki displayed photographs of the two men both dead and alive and included one of Baghdadi in U.S. detention. He didn't say when Baghdadi was detained, and a U.S. military spokesman said he had no information on the matter.

"Al Baghdadi was initially assessed to be a fictional character, however, reporting has proven otherwise," Army Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza wrote in an e-mail.

He said that Baghdadi was the senior Iraqi member of AQI, acted as an emissary for Masri and had support from senior al Qaida leaders in Pakistan. The military didn't say how it knew that al Zawi was al Baghdadi.

Lanza wrote that Iraqi and U.S. forces determined that two of the four people killed in the attack were Masri and Zawi through DNA testing, photo identification, finger print verification and known scars.

"I think it's good news if al Baghdadi turns out to be a single individual, but it wouldn't surprise me if AQI/ISI comes out and says Baghdadi lives on," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, a center-left Washington policy organization.

Fishman said his skepticism that Zawi was the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq was based on a history of using pseudonyms to refer to entire units of the organization rather than to individuals.

He said he thought that the killing of the two would shake up al Qaida in Iraq, which was badly damaged three years ago but had appeared to be gaining confidence since the middle of last year. (Arraf is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent and Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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Read what Iraqis have to say at McClatchy's Inside Iraq blog

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