The al Qaeda-linked militant group Islamic State of Iraq denied in a Feb. 16 Internet posting that Iraq's al Qaeda leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, had been wounded in a raid a day earlier near the city of Balad, north of Baghdad. The Shiite-controlled Iraqi Interior Ministry, in a likely attempt to demonstrate its ability to crack down on insurgents as the Baghdad security effort progresses, prematurely announced Feb. 15 that al-Masri had been wounded in a gunfight when Iraqi police intercepted a group of al Qaeda militants. U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver contradicted the claim, saying Feb. 16, "We are pretty confident that Masri was not killed or wounded. In fact, we believe that Masri was not even involved in any kind of gunbattle yesterday." Al-Masri was installed as al Qaeda's new leader in Iraq following the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Though al-Zarqawi played a central role in publicizing al Qaeda's efforts in Iraq through a series of public statements, his death did little to bring down the level of insurgent violence propagated by al Qaeda in Iraq. In fact, Iraq has witnessed a steady level of suicide attacks (the reasonable estimate of jihadist activity in the country) since his death, indicating the group has more or less been able to maintain its operational tempo.
There is no reason to believe that al-Masri's absence would have a notable effect on the jihadist insurgency either. Sources in jihadist circles say al-Masri was only intended to be a temporary replacement for al-Zarqawi, and that a new leader believed to be a veteran of the mujahideen in Afghanistan would become the new commander of al Qaeda in Iraq. Evidently, there has been a delay in carrying out these plans, which could be attributed to al Qaeda's growing focus on its operations in the Afghan theater
. Al-Masri is described in these jihadist circles as a poor military commander, while his real strengths lie in his intellectual abilities. Al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, apparently was brought in to repair al Qaeda's organization in Iraq and mend the group's relations with Sunni tribal leaders whom al-Zarqawi had recklessly alienated, much to the dismay of deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The demonstrated ability of al Qaeda's franchise in Iraq to withstand ruptures in its command structure can be attributed to a number of factors, including al-Zawahiri's heightened influence over the organization, the proliferation of jihadist groups in Iraq, the escalation of sectarian violence and the interests of outside powers, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since al-Zarqawi's death, al Qaeda in Iraq appears to have followed the slain leader's orders to allow Iraqi nationals to assume leadership roles in the jihadist alliance. This was exemplified through Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq coalition, to whom al-Masri pledged his allegiance in November 2006. The greater integration of Iraqi leaders has enabled the group to build stronger ties to the local Sunni tribal elders and expand its support network in the country. This has allowed for a proliferation of jihadist groups and alliances involving the Islamic State of Iraq, Hilf al Mutayyabin, Jaish al-Fatihin, Jund al-Sahabah and Kataib Ansar al-Tawhid wa al-Sunnah. Al Qaeda has also successfully exploited the rise in sectarian violence following the February 2006 attack against the Shiite al-Askariyah shrine in As Samarra, which has largely prevented the United States from developing any solid political resolution in Iraq. The upsurge in Sunni-Shiite attacks and attacks against U.S. forces has also been fueled by Tehran
to strengthen its bargaining position
vis-a-vis the United States over Iraq. The perception of U.S. weakness in Iraq has widely reverberated throughout the region, and has served to bolster Saudi Arabia's need to maintain a robust Sunni insurgency to contain Iraq's Shiite faction, which in turn has likely provided al Qaeda and its allies with enhanced militant capabilities
. Evidently, enough factors are in play for al Qaeda to sustain itself in Iraq. Though the death or injury of the group's leaders can be used to score political points for the U.S. and Iraqi governments when needed, they are unlikely to be a major detriment to the al Qaeda-led jihadist insurgency.