Al-Qaeda Leaders Killed in Iraq: First Reactions

Why it matters, why it could be premature

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Two top leaders of the al-Qaeda group in Iraq were killed on Saturday by a joint U.S.-Iraq operation. Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were found in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, after operations by Iraqi security forces uncovered the al-Qaeda safe house. The Sunni terrorist group has been waging a continuous and deadly but relatively reduced campaign of bombings in Baghdad. Here's what the killing means for Iraq, for the U.S. mission there, and for the fight against al-Qaeda.

  • Odierno: Biggest Blow to AQI  General Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said, "The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] since the beginning of the insurgency. ... There is still work to do but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq [of] terrorists
  • Who They Were  The Washington Post's Ernesto London profiles the AQI men. "Masri, an Egyptian, rose to the helm of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization after former leader Abu Musaeb al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Masri reportedly moved to Iraq after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to help form the Iraqi branch of the organization. Less was known about Baghdadi, a shadowy figure who was allegedly born in Iraq but who some U.S. intelligence officials suspected was a fictionalized character, invented to bolster the standing among Iraqis of the umbrella group the Islamic State of Iraq."
  • Are They Really Dead?  Newsweek's Mark Hosenball is skeptical. "Given the fact that in the past similar claims sometimes turned out to be premature—in that Qaeda operatives who had been allegedly killed miraculously came back to life—some American officials remain cautious, saying they don't have 100 percent confirmation that the Iraqi government's reports are true," he writes. "A U.S. counter-terrorism official said that reporting from the field was still 'unclear' and that while 'indications' had reached Washington that the two alleged Qaeda leaders were dead, there was still some room for doubt."
  • It Might Not Make Much Difference  The Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen shrugs, "Still, it's far from clear that the deaths will incapacitate al Qaeda in Iraq or prevent the group from mounting additional attacks. In June 2006, American special operations forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Mr. al-Masri's predecessor as head of AQI. Violence decreased for a brief time, but the group was able to mount large-scale attacks almost immediately and more Iraqis were killed in terror bombings after his death than had been killed before it."
  • Can AQI Recover?  NGO Analysis center Chatham House's Gareth Stansfield says, "Al Qaeda has shown in the past that it can come back from this kind of setback. But the question is that as al Qaeda has become weaker and weaker in Iraq whether there is any leadership within the country that they can rely on or whether they will have to bring in an external leader to take over."
  • Baghdadi Could Be Fake  For years, observers have speculated as to whether Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is a fictitious creation of al-Qaeda meant to sow fear. Gulf Research's Mustafa Alani warns, "we must ask whether Baghdadi is real. It's a possibility that he is a fictitious character used by al Qaeda." He notes, "Last year the government showed Baghdadi captured on official TV and then this was denied by the insurgents. I believe Maliki lost credibility as a result. So I don't think Maliki is going to risk losing his credibility a second time without verifying the identity."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.