Having noted that voter angst has been riled, propagandized, and fear-mongered to the point at which the most pressing priority for Congress is to ‘fix’ terrorism, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that we discover – deep down in the archives – that giving the public someone to ‘hate’ as opposed to something may have been an entire fiction. As The New York Times exposed in 2007, Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, the titular head of the Islamic State, according to Brigadier General Kevin Bergner – the chief American military spokesman at the time – never existed (and was actually a fictional character whose audio-taped declarations were provided by an elderly actor named Abu Adullah al-Naima).
For more than a year, the leader of one the most notorious insurgent groups in Iraq was said to be a mysterious Iraqi named Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi.
As the titular head of the Islamic State in Iraq, an organization publicly backed by Al Qaeda, Baghdadi issued a steady stream of incendiary pronouncements. Despite claims by Iraqi officials that he had been killed in May, Baghdadi appeared to have persevered unscathed.
On Wednesday, a senior American military spokesman provided a new explanation for Baghdadi’s ability to escape attack: He never existed.
Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, the chief American military spokesman, said the elusive Baghdadi was actually a fictional character whose audio-taped declarations were provided by an elderly actor named Abu Adullah al-Naima.
The ruse, Bergner said, was devised by Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was trying to mask the dominant role that foreigners play in that insurgent organization.
The ploy was to invent Baghdadi, a figure whose very name establishes his Iraqi pedigree, install him as the head of a front organization called the Islamic State of Iraq and then arrange for Masri to swear allegiance to him. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, sought to reinforce the deception by referring to Baghdadi in his video and Internet statements.
The evidence for the American assertions, Bergner announced at a news briefing, was provided by an Iraqi insurgent: Khalid Abdul Fatah Daud Mahmud al-Mashadani, who was said to have been captured by American forces in Mosul on July 4.
According to Bergner, Mashadani is the most senior Iraqi operative in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. He got his start in the Ansar al-Sunna insurgent group before joining Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia more than two years ago, and became the group’s “media emir” for all of Iraq. Bergner said that Mashadani was also an intermediary between Masri in Iraq and bin Laden and Zawahiri, whom the Americans assert support and guide their Iraqi affiliate.
“Mashadani confirms that al-Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he surrounds himself, not Iraqis, made the operational decisions” for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Bergner said.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and a Middle East expert, said that experts had long wondered whether Baghdadi actually existed. “There has been a question mark about this,” he said.
Nonetheless, Riedel suggested that the disclosures made Wednesday might not be the final word on Baghdadi and the leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Even Mashadani’s assertions, Riedel said, might be a cover story to protect a leader who does in fact exist.
“First, they say we have killed him,” Riedel said, referring to the statements by some Iraqi government officials. “Then we heard him after his death and now they are saying he never existed. That suggests that our intelligence on Al Qaeda in Iraq is not what we want it to be.”
American military spokesmen insist they have gotten to the truth on Baghdadi. Mashadani, they say, provided his account because he resented the role of foreign leaders in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They say he has not repudiated the organization.