BAGHDAD – The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella terror group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, is led by a fictional character designed to mask that group's foreign influence, a captured terror leader has revealed to U.S. interrogators.
In an effort to give Al Qaeda an Iraqi face, terrorists created "a virtual organization in cyberspace," U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said.
In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a name indicating Iraqi origin. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi.
The Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who is the known leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is named as minister of war in the umbrella organization.
Berger said Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who was called the highest-ranking Iraqi in the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership when he was captured July 4 in Mosul, told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within Al Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Bergner said.
Al-Mashhadani said that an actor with an Iraqi accent is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web, Bergner said.
Bergner told reporters al-Mashhadani served as the link between the organization's command in Iraq and Usama bin Laden's inner circle, enabling the terror group to wield considerable influence over the Iraqi organization.
Al-Mashhadani personally carried messages from bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, to al-Masri, Bergner said.
Al Qaeda's global leadership provides "directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations" and "they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq, foreign terrorists," he said.
To make their fictional leader appear credible, al-Masri swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi and pledged to obey him, which was essentially swearing allegiance to himself, Bergner said.
Al-Zawahiri also repeatedly referred to al-Baghdadi in video and Internet statements, further deceiving Iraqi followers and perpetuating the myth of al-Baghdadi.
The relationship between bin Laden and the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership has long been the subject of debate. Some private analysts still believe the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was created in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He led a group called Tawhid and Jihad, responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, whose final moments were captured on videotapes provided to Arab television stations.
Al-Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.
Although Al Qaeda in Iraq's rank-and-file are mostly Iraqis, the Iraqi group's top leadership is dominated by foreigners, Bergner said. That includes al-Masri, who joined an Al Qaeda forerunner in Egypt in the 1980s and later helped train fighters who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
Al-Mashadani was a leader in the Ansar Al Sunna terrorist group before joining Al Qaeda in Iraq two and half years ago. He served as the Al Qaeda media emir for Baghdad and then was appointed the media emir for all of Iraq.
Under interrogation, Al-Mashadani said Al-Masri and the foreign leaders who surround him make the operational decisions, not Iraqis.
"Al-Masri started overpowering us and acted on his own accord, by controlling the distribution of funding," Al-Mashadani is quoted as saying.
"The idea of al-Baghdadi is very weak now because other insurgent groups have realized that the concept of al-Baghdadi is controlled by the Al Qaeda foreign fighters in Iraq."