Just a few hours after Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed in a US air bombing on June 7, American sources announced al Qaeda had named his successor as Abu Ayyub al- Masri, an Egyptian with ties to Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri.
Every effort has been made since to plug this name.
Thursday, June 15, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said that Abu Ayyub al-Masri is the same man that al Qaeda identified in a Web posting last week as its new leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer. In subsequent postings, al Muhajer swore to avenge his predecessor.
Caldwell displayed to reporters in Baghdad not one but several pictures of al-Masri wearing a traditional white Arab headdress. The American officer went on to describe al-Masri as an Afghanistan-trained explosives expert and a key figure in the al-Qaeda network with responsibility for facilitating the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Baghdad.
Caldwell traced his record from 1982, “beginning with his involvement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad led by Zawahiri,” he said.
To be on the safe side, he added that al-Masri’s ability to exert leadership over al Qaeda’s cells remained unclear. There were other al Qaeda senior members and Sunni terrorists, he said, who might try and take over. As alternatives, Caldwell also named Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, formerly identified as Zarqawi’s deputy, and Abdullah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi, head of the Shura Council.
The set of photos and the detailed bio sounded to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources and al Qaeda experts, rather too pat. It may be taken for granted that like most sophisticated military intelligence services, the US command in Iraq had prepared a piece of psychological warfare material in the form of a character built up ready to go for the purpose of compounding the confusion and shock in enemy ranks following Zarqawi’s sudden death.
The real successor, according to our sources, is not Abu Ayyub al-Masri but Abdullah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi. But the false name will have the rank and file looking over their shoulders uneasily.
The ruse should have two effects:
- Any orders coming from the real al Qaeda commander in Iraq will be treated with suspicion by his subordinates and most likely disobeyed. This will make them less cautious and more prone to exposure and capture by US forces on their trail.
- The false leader is depicted as a crony of the Egyptian al Zawahiri, the least popular of al Qaeda’s leaders among the Iraqi following. The consequence could be a spate of defections.