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A Shattering of Memes

The career of Zarqawi's likely successor highlights Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.

1:30 PM, Jun 11, 2006 • By DAN DARLING
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WITH THE DEATH of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a great deal of attention has focused on Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born terrorist that Major General William Caldwell singled out as the "most logical" choice by al Qaeda in Iraq to replace Zarqawi. What all of this attention has missed, however, is what it means concerning U.S. pre-war claims about Iraqi collaboration with al Qaeda.

According to the information provided by the U.S. military, al-Masri traveled to Iraq in 2002 before Zarqawi and established the first al Qaeda cell in the Baghdad area. From both his nationality and connections with al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, it can be reasonably concluded that al-Masri was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the group that al-Zawahiri headed prior to his merger with bin Laden's organization. This is significant, given the 9/11 Commission report's cryptic note that al-Zawahiri had "ties of his own" to the former Iraqi regime and al-Masri's presence in Saddam's Baghdad.

With the advantage of hindsight, it appears that al-Masri was one of two "senior Egyptian Islamic Jihad associates" that then-CIA Director George Tenet referenced to Senator Jack Reed before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

SEN. REED: I--I--the issue is--and I want to be clear. I understand your response. This issue is his relationship to Saddam Hussein, to Baghdad, to--if he is operating in concert explicitly with Saddam Hussein, or is there for the--his own convenience and safety--can you comment on that?

TENET: The argument--the specific line of evidence and argument we have made is they're providing safe haven to him. And we know this because a foreign government approached the Iraqis twice about Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad, and he disappeared. The second troubling piece of this, sir, is, as I mentioned yesterday, the two dozen other associates and two senior Egyptian Islamic Jihad associates that's indistinguishable from al Qaeda because they merged there. And the third piece I'd say to you is Baghdad's not Geneva. It is inconceivable that these people are sitting there without the Iraqi intelligence services knowledge of the fact that there is a safe haven being provided by people to people who believe it's fairly comfortable to operate there. That's as far as I can take the story today.

SEN. REED: All right. Following up, the presence--all of these individuals you've cited are in Baghdad, based on your information?

TENET: Yes.

SEN. REED: Do you have any information that, beyond providing the safe haven, as you seem to have clear evidence, that the Iraqi regime is facilitating their operations?

TENET: That's what we're trying to understand more of, sir.

It should be noted in the exchange cited above that Sen. Reed acknowledged to Director Tenet that there appeared to be "clear evidence" that the Iraqi regime was providing safe haven to Zarqawi and two senior Egyptian Islamic Jihad associates (one of whom was al-Masri). Secretary Powell later described these same individuals before the U.N. Security Council as having "established a base of operations" in Baghdad where they could "coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq . . . they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months."

Powell also alleged that "We know these affiliates are connected to Zarqawi because they remain even today in regular contact with his direct subordinates, including the poison cell plotters, and they are involved in moving more than money and materiel." This is perhaps the most alarming accusation. The State Department's 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism report notes that, "In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations."

CRITICS OF THE ADMINISTRATION claim that the presence of Zarqawi and his associates in Baghdad, like the body of administration claims of Iraqi collaboration with Zarqawi, were the result of "cherry-picked" or manipulated intelligence. The bipartisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee, whose members include several of the administration's most strident critics, found otherwise, concluding that "the information provided by the Central Intelligence Agency for the terrorism portion of Secretary Powell's speech was carefully vetted by both terrorism and region analysts" and that "none of the portrayals of the intelligence reporting included in Secretary Powell's speech differed in any significant way from earlier assessments published by the Central Intelligence Agency."

TWO FURTHER ASPECTS of al-Masri's career cut deeply into critics' understanding of Zarqawi and his organization. While some have alleged that bin Laden and Zarqawi existed as rivals prior to the invasion of Iraq, this interpretation is belied by General Caldwell's statement that Zarqawi first met al-Masri at al-Farouk, an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and has had a "very close relationship" with him since arriving in Iraq.

The acknowledgement by Caldwell that al-Masri was in contact with al-Zawahiri likewise belies critics' charges that no real connection exists between al Qaeda in Iraq and its parent organization headed up by Osama bin Laden. See the calls among Zarqawi's online followers for bin Laden to appoint a new emir of al Qaeda in Iraq so that their jihad can continue. Clearly, whatever the differences between Zarqawi and bin Laden, they were more than willing to cooperate when it came to killing Americans.

The potential rise of Abu Ayyub al-Masri in al Qaeda in Iraq provides a welcome opportunity for the administration to both clarify misperceptions concerning the nature and identity of our enemies and rebut critics who falsely accuse the administration of having brought terrorism to Iraq. Whether or not the administration chooses to seize this opportunity will be another matter altogether.

Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant.