Does Death Prove Iraqi Al Qaeda Leader Existed?

U.S. and Iraqi forces may have announced the killing of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi—but U.S. military authorities once publicly questioned the existence of any such person. In a May 3, 2007, press briefing, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, then a top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, was asked about the reported capture or death of two top leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI): Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Caldwell denied that U.S. forces were holding Masri, an Egyptian jihadist who succeeded Jordanian-born Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi as AQI's military supremo after Zarqawi's death in June 2006. And as for Baghdadi, reputedly the highest-ranking Iraqi-born AQI leader, Caldwell said, "If that person even exists . . . We have nobody in our possession or know of anybody that does, either alive or dead, that is going through any kind of testing or analysis at this point." Caldwell said later: "We're not really sure who that is. There's a lot of discussion about a person called al-Baghdadi, but we actually have no knowledge who that might be . . . don't know who al-Baghdadi is."

U.S. forces issued a communiqué on Monday reporting that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed both Masri and Baghdadi in a raid on their hideout near the late Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit last weekend. Nevertheless, as Declassified reported, some officials in Washington were more cautious, saying they did not yet have 100 percent confirmation that the two AQI leaders were dead. The doubt arose at least in part from the knowledge that both men had previously been prematurely declared captured, wounded, or dead. Later on Monday, however, Vice President Joe Biden and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region, confirmed that both insurgent chiefs were dead.

A U.S. defense official and a U.S. counterterrorism official, requesting anonymity when discussing sensitive information, say the latest reports from Baghdad are increasingly persuasive that Baghdadi really did exist and that he was indeed killed by security forces over the weekend, although one of the officials indicates that certainty regarding his death has still not reached 100 percent. The two officials say serious questions existed in the past about whether there really was an AQI leader with the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The thought at the time was that Baghdadi might have been a fake persona used by multiple insurgents and created to show that AQI's leadership included some actual Iraqis, and not only foreign jihadists like Zarqawi and Masri. Back in 2007, the defense official says, the Americans suspected that "because he was such a shadowy figure," Baghdadi might be no more than a chimera.

But three years of cumulative intelligence have demonstrated Baghdadi was a real individual, the two officials say, adding that U.S. military forces in Iraq are convinced that he was indeed one of the two Qaeda leaders who were killed over the weekend. One of the officials said that Baghdadi had left behind audio messages, and that DNA samples as well as pictures taken of his dead body confirm his identity—and his demise. Nevertheless, the official could not explain how U.S. forces could have obtained DNA samples from Baghdadi when he was alive for comparison with the dead suspect's DNA, nor how voiceprints from messages attributed to Baghdadi can be matched to the voice of a corpse. Asked what made the Americans so confident that U.S. forces had killed Baghdadi, a Pentagon spokesman referred Declassified's inquiry to a senior U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. The spokesman offered no immediate comment.

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Does Death Prove Iraqi Al Qaeda Leader Existed? | U.S.