U.S. military officials say that a recently captured top al Qaeda leader in Iraq is fully cooperating with coalition forces and shedding light on the terrorist network.
Khalid Abdul Fatah Da"ud Mahmud al-Mashadani, also known as Abu Shahed and the top Iraqi member of al Qaeda in Iraq, was taken from his home July 4 in the northern city of Mosul by coalition forces. Al-Mashadani, who has been cooperating with the U.S. forces since his capture two weeks ago, played a crucial role in al Qaeda's propaganda machine, said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith in a telephone call from Iraq yesterday with The Washington Times.
The capture of al-Mashadani was announced yesterday in Baghdad, one day after the administration released declassified portions of a new National Intelligence Estimate on the threat of terrorism, particularly from al Qaeda, against the U.S. homeland.
Al-Mashadani's cooperation with U.S. officials stemmed from his "strong sense of nationalism" and "anger" that foreign al Qaeda operatives were creating a false front and using Iraq as a staging ground for their own gain, said Adm. Smith, who is deputy director of public relations with the U.S.-led coalition forces.
U.S. intelligence officials had long thought that the Islamic State of Iraq, which al Qaeda in Iraq had declared, was "nothing more than a front for foreign al Qaeda operatives," he added.
"One of the greatest weapons of al Qaeda is their propaganda machine," Adm. Smith said. "He was their main propaganda machine. I think his capture has great significance inside Iraq. He was the most senior member with authority and taking him out will have impact."
But his capture doesn't necessarily mean someone else won't take his place.
"Certainly, they've obviously been able to regenerate leadership," Adm. Smith said. "Replacing a top official like al-Mashadani won't be easy. But his capture is a blow to al Qaeda in Iraq. Over the past six months, coalition forces have been gathering intelligence and putting pressure on the insurgents. Al Qaeda in Pakistan is using Iraq to create energy for their broadest jihad movement."
Over the past two months, U.S. forces have killed or captured 26 al Qaeda senior operatives, but every month, nearly 60 to 80 foreign insurgents enter the country, he added. Most foreign operatives in Iraq came from Saudi Arabia, with jihadists from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan also common.
The move by coalition forces to continue to put pressure on the al Qaeda network in Iraq is inhibiting the Islamist terrorist organization from developing a national movement from within the country, Adm. Smith said.
Army Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, spokesman for the Multinational Force in Iraq, said at a press conference in Baghdad yesterday that the information gathered from al-Mashadani revealed that he was the conduit between al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and non-Iraqi operatives in the country.
The White House trumpeted the capture as an example of success from President Bush's troop-surge plan, and the new U.S. military plan in Iraq.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that this month coalition forces have captured a top al Qaeda security man in Mosul and killed an al Qaeda cell leader, Abu Jurah, in Baghdad. He called those accomplishments "an example of the kind of intelligence we are beginning to get now from locals about al Qaeda activities."
With the Iraq strategy dependent on the upcoming September report on how the surge is working, the White House is stepping up its public relations effort to tout successes such as captures and killings. Mr. Snow took time to repeat some of Gen. Bergner's presentation at the daily White House press briefing.
"I'm not sure that the American public gets an opportunity to see a lot of this, and I think it's important to do it," he told reporters who wondered why the double-barreled approach.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, criticized Democratic leaders for their attempt to force the Bush administration to pull out of Iraq.
"Had the majority been successful in forcing a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq earlier this year, Mashadani would be free and hatching plots to kill innocent people today," Mr. Boehner said. "This is a great victory for the troops, and it should remind all of us that they are fighting in the right place, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Al Qaeda made Iraq the central front in the global war on terror, which is why we must confront them there — not just for the safety and security of the Iraqis but for the American people, too."
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said that al-Mashadani's capture is an important step in limiting al Qaeda's growth and protecting American interests from future attacks.
"Clearly, the capture of this leader will demoralize al Qaeda and raise the morale of Americans," said Mr. Hunter, a 2008 presidential hopeful. "It's a lot more significant than the capture of one of the sectarian leaders. [Al-Mashadani] clearly had ambitions to expand his operations in Iraq — and therefore his capture is especially important."
Al-Mashadani is a close associate of Abu Ayyub Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. He was a leader in the Ansar al-Sunna terrorist group before joining al Qaeda more than two years ago, when he began serving as an intermediary between Masri, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, Gen. Bergner said.
Gen. Bergner said that the purported chief for the Iraqi organization, Omar al-Baghdadi, is an Iraqi actor and didn't exist.