Capturing the Man, Destroying the Idea
Fox reports that "the highest-ranking Iraqi in the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been arrested".
Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also known as Abu Shahid, was captured in Mosul on July 4, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a military spokesman. Al-Mashhadani is believed to be the most senior Iraqi in the Al Qaeda in Iraq network," Bergner said. He said al-Mashhadani was a close associate of Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani served as an intermediary between al-Masri and Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri. "In fact, communication between the senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," Bergner said. He added: "There is a clear connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda senior leadership outside Iraq."
Bill Roggio has more details, but the gist is this:
- Mashadani was a long-time Salafist agent. He was al-Qaeda's man sent to direct the Sunni insurgency
- Both the Islamic State of Iraq and its leader supposed leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were constructs of al-Qaeda too. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was the entirely fictional counterpart of Mashadani.
Roggio describes how the imposture worked:
Al Masri then swore allegiance to al Baghdadi “which was essentially swearing allegiance to himself, since he knew that Baghdadi was fictitious and totally his own creation,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. “The rank and file Iraqis in AQI believed they are following the Iraqi al-Baghdadi but all the while they have actually been following the orders of the Egyptian Abu ‘Ayyub al- Masri.”
Mashadani said the domestic insurgents groups recognize that al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq are fronts. “The idea of al-Baghdadi is very weak now because other insurgent groups have realized that the concept of al-Baghdadi is controlled by the al-Qaeda foreign fighters in Iraq,” said Mashadani to his interrogators.
Mashadani stated that al Qaeda in Iraq is operationally controlled by foreign fighters, not Iraqi insurgents. “Mashadani confirms that al Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he surrounds himself, not Iraqis, make the operational decisions for AQI,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. “According to Mashadani, in fact, al Masri increasingly relies only on foreigners, who make up the majority of the leadership of AQI. He does not seek or trust the advice of Iraqis in the organization.”
One of the most interesting aspects of these revelations is that they support the principal counter-narrative that MNF is trying to promote: that of Iraqi nationalist and tribal groups struggling against the "outsiders", i.e. al-Qaeda, out to rule their country by remote control. As pointed out in the post Empire of the Mind, an extensive analysis of Jihadi propaganda by Radio Free Europe analysts (first class, BTW, the RFE report should be read in its entirety) shows that the actual and principal ideological split in terrorist narratives as revealed from postings, statements and propaganda or their websites is precisely between the "locals" and the pan-Islamics, led by al-Qaeda. It is on this weak point that Bergner's revelations hammer on mercilessly. Belmont Club readers will remember the post, Zawahiri Tape, where al-Qaeda's number two was making an impassioned appeal for unity among the Iraqi Jihadis, saying disunity was wrecking everything. It was tacit admission of this particular ideological division. Zawahiri was especially bemoaning the lack of perceived legitimacy of his Islamic State of Iraq, not just among locals, but even among regional governments as well. Zawahiri, sounding almost like "a used car salesman" (in my words) made odious comparisons between Brand A, the "thugs" of Hamas, who were semi-prisoners of the Jew and yet accorded international respect and Brand B, his own Islamic State of Iraq, which was regarded as "unempowered" despite its magnificent achievements. Why, he asked, should the Palestinian Hamas receive so much support while no one heeded his commander's calls for recruits. He even played audio from his commanders with the chilling threat to gouge out the eyes of those who were deaf to his call for Jihad. Readers will also recall how Zawahiri, instantly forgetting his gouging threat, then went out of his way to characterize his fighters as blameless of shedding innocent blood, especially when contrasted with Hamas who he disparaged yet again. Then, after proclaiming al-Qaeda's innocence Zawahiri then makes the curious offer to refer any complaints about al-Qaeda in Iraq men to an Islamic judicial tribunal, thus acknowledging on the one hand what he denied with the other.
Bergner's remarks about the fraudulence of the "Islamic State of Iraq" -- that it it is simply an al-Qaeda front -- and about the fictive nature of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi are the first direct indication that MNF is not only learning how to play the meme game but that their operations are already having a powerful effect. Zawahiri's worry about the Islamic State of Iraq's legitimacy may be the effect of MNF counternarrative operations or perhaps reason they are harping on it. Bergner's revelations hammer directly upon the weakest point of al-Qaeda's narrative: it's legitimacy and standing not only in political, but religious terms.
Viewed in retrospect, MNF's focus on emphasizing al-Qaeda as the source of atrocities and highlighting it's "foreign-ness", brutality and Salafist religious affiliation may have been a brilliant move. Whether this achievement is accidental or intentional history will tell. Those who read the post Empire of the Mind may remember how, on Jihadi websites, al-Qaeda systematically characterized its rivals in sectarian terms. The Radio Free Europe researchers wrote:
The vast majority of the statements issued in March 2007 use religion-based, pejorative codewords for the targets of attacks.U.S. and coalition forces are called “crusaders”and “worshippers of the cross.” Iraqi police are “apostates.” Iraq’s National Guard is the “Idolatrous Guard.” The Shi’ite Imam Al-Mahdi Army—named after the Mahdi, or redeemer, whose coming is supposed to herald the end of the world—is referred to as the “Army of the Antichrist.” Shi’a are termed “rejectionists” for their supposed rejection of true Islam. Thus, insurgents’ rhetoric implies that they fight U.S. and coalition forces because they seek to impose Christianity on Iraq, government forces because they have turned their backs on Islam, and Shi’a because they are heretics.
Bergner is simply -- and very effectively -- paying them back in their own coin. Now the "Idolatrous Guard" is having a chuckle over the "fake" Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, as AQI's feared leader turns out to be no more genuine than Mickey Mouse. One can only imagine how the Shi’ite Imam Al-Mahdi Army, AKA the “Army of the Antichrist”, is reveling in confirmation that the Islamic State of Iraq is nothing more than a front organization for a bunch of Salafists holed up in a Pakistani cave.
Roggio is right in saying that Mashadani's capture is a victory for US Special Forces. Without those kinetic operators and the intelligence behind them no information operations will work. Words need bullets to back them up. But bullets need words behind them too, if they are to destroy ideas and not simply gunmen. So Mashadani's capture is also a victory for the shadowy warriors of the counternarrative. They are not only telling a story. They are writing one.