As we learned during the long hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, reports of an Al-Qaida leader's demise or capture are often too good to be true. Sadly, that also appears to be the case for Zarqawi's successor, Abu Ayuub al-Masri. A number of media outlets reported yesterday taht al-Masri had been wounded and captured by Iraqi security forces, after a firefight north of Baghdad. One of al-Masri's senior aides was apparently killed during that skirmish.
At Pajamas Media, Richard Miniter does a good job of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and knocks down claims that we've nabbed al-Masri. U.S. intelligence sources told Miniter that a man matching al-Masri's physical description was captured after a raid on a terrorist safehouse north of Baghdad. The suspect had no fingerprints--they had been deliberately burned off--preventing identification through that method. Subsequent DNA tests reportedly confirmed that the suspect was not the Al Qaida leader.
Miniter blames the mix-up on an Iraqi Interior Ministry that is anxious to deliver "good news" about the security situation, even if the facts don't always support their assertions. Clearly, the capture of al-Masri would have represented a major victory for coalition forces. The "new" leader of Al Qaida in Iraq is viewed as a much more skillful--and dangerous--that his brutish predecessor, al-Zarqawi.
If there's any consolation is this reported "miss," it's the sense that al-Masri's reign as Iraq's Public Enemy #1 will likely be brief. As Bill Roggio reminds us, members of Task Force 145 (the joint special ops hunter-killer team that played a critical role in locating Zarqawi) are hot on al-Masri's trail, as well. And, as Mr. Roggio points out, the noose around the former Al Qaida leader began to tighten as members of Task Force 145 rounded up senior members of Zarqawi's inner circle. A senior aide to al-Masri was captured last week, less than 24 hours after he met with his leader, suggesting that we're devloping good intelligence on the current Al Qaida leader, and may be able to neutralize him in relatively short order.
On a related note, Richard Miniter offers this item about "revised" terrorist tactics in Iraq:
al Qaeda has deployed a screen of antiaircraft weapons around Baghdad – in an attempt to cut off American and allied attempts at aerial reconnaissance. Al Masri is trying to force troops into dangerous ground patrols where they can killed by roadside bombs or snipers.
Where are the antiaircraft weapons and the trained operators for them coming from? “We’re still debating that,” said one military official. “But all evidence points to Iran.”
As we've noted in the past, insurgent dreams of "cutting off" aerial reconnaissance are just that --pure fantasy. Despite the recent loss of attack and transport helicopters, the U.S. still generates hundreds of chopper sorties every day in Iraq. Our UAVs and fixed-wing aircraft operate with inpunity, as evidenced by the scores of fighters and recconnaissance drones that criss-cross Iraq on a daily basis.
And, regarding that "screen" of anti-aircraft weapons that may have originated in Iran, I would not want to be a part of an Al-Qaida air defense crew, taking on the U.S. Army or the USAF in Iraq. Remember that B-1 that was observered circling Baghdad the other day? Even a single B-1 could deliver a devastating attack on a Palm Grove or other rural location that is favored by terrorist MANPAD gunners. UAVs are useful in tracking the gunners when they jump into a car and attempt to drive away, and of course, our fighters can deliver precision attacks from outside the MANPAD envelope. Factor in the Army's Apache gunships, and you've got a very lethal threat facing any terrorist air defense crew that elects to "stand and fight."