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A Master Terrorist’s First Days in Baghdad

Before the U.S. entered Iraq.

9:45 PM, Apr 19, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The U.S. military has confirmed that the two most senior members of al Qaeda in Iraq were killed in a joint raid conducted with Iraqi forces Sunday morning. The two terrorists killed in the raid are: Abu Ayyub al Masri (aka Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, the military leader of al Qaeda in Iraq) and Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al Zawi (aka Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the overall leader of AQI).

A Master Terrorist’s First Days in Baghdad

“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” General Ray Odierno said in a statement on the official web site for U.S. Forces in Iraq.

Indeed, this is big news. But here is one fact the press is not likely to trumpet: Abu Ayyub al Masri set up shop in Saddam’s Iraq roughly ten months prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. His presence there was tracked by the CIA. The agency was even concerned that al Masri and his al Qaeda compatriots might be planning terrorist attacks outside of Iraq from Baghdad.       

In his book, At the Center of the Storm, George Tenet details some of the evidence the CIA collected on the relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda prior to March 2003. Tenet revealed that the agency, which was divided on the extent of the relationship, had compiled “more than enough evidence” connecting the two. In other words, contrary to what is now the conventional wisdom, there was a relationship between the Baathist regime and the jihadist terror network. The CIA just wasn’t sure how close the relationship was. 

In particular, the CIA tracked Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who would go on to lead al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as an al Qaeda affiliate named Ansar al Islam (AI). Tenet says that AI established training camps in northeastern Iraq and as many as 200 al Qaeda terrorists relocated to the camps, which became a “hub for al-Qa’ida operations.”  

At a camp known as Kurmal, al Qaeda “engaged in [the] production and training in the use of low-level poisons such as cyanide.” Tenet elaborates: “We had intelligence telling us that Zarqawi’s men had tested these poisons on animals and, in at least one case, on one of their own associates.” Tracking the al Qaeda presence at Kurmal “resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations,” Tenet says.

However, al Qaeda’s presence was not limited to northeastern Iraq, which was nominally outside of Saddam’s control (Iraqi intelligence services still maintained a significant presence there). Tenet writes: 

What was even more worrisome was that by the spring and summer of 2002, more than a dozen al-Qa’ida-affiliated extremists converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government. They had found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies to support Zarqawi’s operations in northeastern Iraq.

Among the al Qaeda operatives who moved to Baghdad in May 2002 was an Egyptian named Yussef al Dardiri. As The Washington Post first reported, Yussef al Dardiri is Abu Ayyub al Masri’s real name. 

Again, Tenet writes (emphasis added):

More al-Qa'ida operatives would follow, including Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri [note: aka Abu Ayyub al Masri], two Egyptians assessed by a senior al-Qa'ida detainee to be among the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's best operational planners, who arrived by mid-May of 2002. At times we lost track of them, though their associates continued to operate in Baghdad as of October 2002. Their activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi's camps was compelling enough.

There was also concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq. Credible information told us that Shihata was willing to strike U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future. Shihata had been linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs.

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