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).
“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.
Tenet goes on to say that the CIA considered this, as well as other evidence, to be “smoke” possibly indicating a deeper relationship between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. But the agency’s analysts did not know if there was “fire” – that is, they did not have good intelligence on the precise nature of the relationship between the Iraqi regime and the al Qaeda operatives who were conspiring in Baghdad. The agency simply did not know how closely the two were working together. The CIA also did not think that Saddam’s goons had “command and control” over the al Qaeda terrorists.
But, Tenet writes, “from an intelligence point of view it would have been difficult to conclude that the Iraqi intelligence service was not aware of their activities.” That is true. Saddam’s Baghdad was a neo-Stalinist capital, and it is difficult to believe that al Qaeda terrorists would set up shop there, coordinate their activities with other al Qaeda terrorists in northeastern Iraq, and engage in a variety of other activities without Saddam knowing it. One important al Qaeda terrorist was even briefly detained in Baghdad during this period, but Saddam ordered him released.
At a minimum, Tenet’s testimony rebuts one of the more prevalent Iraq war myths – that there were no al Qaeda terrorists present in Saddam’s Iraq until the American invasion opened the door for them.
There is more to this story than Tenet lets on.
For example, there is evidence that Saddam actively fostered al Qaeda’s presence on Iraqi soil. In Abdel Bari Atwan's The Secret History of al Qaeda, Dr. Muhammad al Masri (a known al Qaeda mouthpiece) and Baathist sources explain that Saddam funded the relocation of al Qaeda operatives to Iraq “with the proviso that they would not undermine his regime.” Saddam also sent “messengers to buy small plots of land from farmers in Sunni areas” and “[i]n the middle of the night soldiers would bury arms and money caches for later use by the resistance.”
Dr. al Masri told Atwan that Iraqi army commanders “were ordered to become practicing Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis.” When al Qaeda operatives arrived in Iraq, they “were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam’s caches.”
From this vantage point, it is not surprising that the places where Saddam’s regime was strongest ended up hosting al Qaeda. Abu Ayyub al Masri himself was killed not far from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.
There is additional evidence that Saddam called for terrorists throughout the region to relocate to Iraqi soil. And, in February 2003, Osama bin Laden himself called on Muslims to fight alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces. Saddam and his regime were “infidel” socialists, bin Laden said. But they were better than the Americans. “There is nothing wrong with a convergence of interests here,” bin Laden argued.
There are deeper ties here as well. Abu Ayyub al Masri was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which Ayman al Zawahiri led since the 1980s. The EIJ’s cooperation and eventual merger with al Qaeda provided Osama bin Laden with much of the muscle and tactical capabilities his organization needed to blossom into an international terrorist threat. Zawahiri also influenced bin Laden in profound ways, crucially contributing to the terror master’s plans for creating an international jihadist coalition.
Zawahiri always found utility in cooperating with rogue states when it suited his interests. For instance, the 9/11 Commission found that Zawahiri “had ties of his own” to Saddam’s regime.
Iraqi Intelligence documents discovered in post-Saddam Iraq provided additional context to the 9/11 Commission’s finding. One document, in particular, notes that Saddam’s intelligence services and Zawahiri’s EIJ agreed to cooperate in operations targeting Zawahiri’s long-time enemy: Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.
Abu Ayyub al Masri was one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s longest-serving lieutenants. Zawahiri found it convenient to cooperate with Saddam on occasion.
Lo and behold, we find that Abu Ayyub and other senior EIJ members relocated to Saddam’s Baghdad in 2002. And Abu Ayyub had plotted terror inside Iraq ever since.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.