We should underline the following four points in our initial reaction to foreign reports, including a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, that “Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed by an Iraqi team.”
1. The confirmation of this event must be clear and explanatory so that no confusion is created, especially as the jihadi propaganda machine spins it in different directions to incite leading to sectarian reprisals. It is important for the Iraqi government to show unity among Shia and Sunnis when claiming victory.
2. If confirmed, the elimination of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the emir of al-Qaida in Iraq, and Abu Ayyub al Masri, the organization’s defense minister in Iraq, means that joint Iraqi-U.S. counterterrorism measures were able to find and take out the head of the dangerous al-Qaida network in Iraq.
Caution is in order, as the organization was "beheaded" only momentarily. Note that other members of al-Qaida were killed and arrested in the same operation, accordingly. The next question should be about how Baghdad will follow up: Will there be more strikes, is there more information about the rest of the organization, and how will the Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition handle the media management of the event?
The facts must be confirmed because of past episodes in which the Iraqi government and security authorities had declared the elimination of al-Qaida commanders before the latter re-emerged in the jihadist media again. If it is confirmed that Abu Omar al Baghdadi (aka Hamed al Zawi) and Abu Ayyub al Masri (aka Abu Hamza al Muhajer and aka Abdel Munih al Badawi) have been taken out, this could be described as a significant strike against the leadership.
Sources in the region believe that al Baghdadi was highly important in the eyes of the youth of al-Qaida. Some even alleged that he was a candidate for being declared a khalifa (that is, the caliph of all Muslims), obviously in the eyes of the Salafi jihadists.
3. If confirmed, the fact that the top leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq was eliminated must compel various branches of U.S. strategic communications to craft the appropriate messages in the media. One expects al-Qaida, the jihadist propaganda machine, and its sympathizers in the Arab media to incite revenge and counter strikes.
U.S. communicators, in coordination with anti-al-Qaida Arab media, need to address the consequences of this event by counter messaging with appropriate narratives.
4. Last but not least, again if the event is confirmed, one has to project that al-Qaida-Iraq wasn’t "crumbled" but "beheaded." The Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition should expect retribution at some stage and eventually the rise of a future "emir" for al-Qaida fi Bilad al Rafidain (al-Qaida in Mesopotamia).
Dr. Walid Phares is director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad."
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