In early March of this year, the current head of the umbrella insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was reported captured. In early May, somewhat inconveniently, he was reported killed -- in a separate engagement from the one in which he had been captured. The irrepressible al-Baghdadi later popped up again, sounding remarkably in tune with the White House in denouncing Iranian interference in Iraq -- an announcement was soon followed up by a car bomb attack outside the Iranian embassy in Baghdad.
Faced with such a persistent opponent, the US military has come up with a new approach: a declaration that al-Baghdadi is imaginary. Really. This comes with the report of the latest talkative insurgent captured by the US military, who despite repeatedly claiming to be up against a foreign-led insurgency, only ever seems to capture Iraqis. So --
Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also known as Abu Shahid, was captured in Mosul on July 4, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a military spokesman.
"Al-Mashhadani is believed to be the most senior Iraqi in the al-Qaida in Iraq network," Bergner said. He said al-Mashhadani was a close associate of Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani served as an intermediary between al-Masri and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. "In fact, communication between the senior al-Qaida leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," Bergner said.
"Along with al-Masri, al-Mashhadani co-founded a virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006," Bergner said. "The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest efforts by al-Qaida to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people."
In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, with al-Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi. Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri and that an actor is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaida in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," Bergner said.
This is truly a classic of irrefutable claims. They can't capture al-Baghdadi, so he's declared not to exist. The insurgency that says it's Iraqi is in fact foreign, but they can't prove that, so they claim that the Islamic State of Iraq is really just an e-Qaeda.com, lacking perhaps only a blogger to complete its Internet presence. And all this just a few days after a White House official likened the actual al-Qaeda, which really does exist, to an imaginary character from childhood nightmares.
One likely driver of this shadow-chasing is that George W. Bush's talking points really need the name of the insurgent group in Iraq to be al-Qaeda in Iraq, so that he can disengenuously claim that they are the group which carried out the 9-11 attacks. The rebranding of that group as an all-Iraqi outfit would be a big problem.
UPDATE: Here's the official Pentagon story on Bergner's new theory about al Qaeda in Iraq, and here's an extensive roundup of (sceptical) coverage of the new theory.