When Did the Myth of AQI Become the Reality of ISIS?

Last night I stumbled upon an old piece I wrote in July of 2007 called When Psy-Ops Go Bad. The key Los Angeles Times source in that piece is now a dead link, but you can find the article here. It details the Pentagon’s claims that the notorious al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist Abu Omar Baghdadi was an entirely fictional character.

In March, he was declared captured. In May, he was declared killed, and his purported corpse was displayed on state-run TV. But on Wednesday, Abu Omar Baghdadi, the supposed leader of an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Iraq, was declared nonexistent by U.S. military officials, who said he was a fictional character created to give an Iraqi face to a foreign-run terrorist organization.

An Iraqi actor has been used to read statements attributed to Baghdadi, who since October has been identified as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq group, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner.

Bergner said the new information came from a man captured July 4, described as the highest-ranking Iraqi within the Islamic State of Iraq.

He said the detainee, identified as Khalid Abdul Fatah Daud Mahmoud Mashadani, has served as a propaganda chief in the organization, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group that swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

According to Bergner, Mashadani helped create Islamic State of Iraq as a “virtual organization” that exists in cyberspace and is essentially a pseudonym for Al Qaeda in Iraq, another group that claims ties to Bin Laden. The front organization was aimed at making Iraqis believe that Al Qaeda in Iraq is a nationalistic group, even though it is led by an Egyptian and has few Iraqis among its leaders, Bergner said at a news conference.

“The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest effort by Al Qaeda to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people,” Bergner said.

Islamic State of Iraq has been widely described as an umbrella organization of several insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.

There was no way to confirm the military’s claim, which comes at a time of heightened pressure on the White House to justify keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Critics of the Bush administration say the president has been trying to do so by linking Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network to the conflict in Iraq, even though the organization had no substantial presence here until after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.

“The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people” in Iraq, Bush said Tuesday.

The U.S. military’s announcement Wednesday was the latest bizarre twist surrounding the figure known as Baghdadi. If the Iraqi government’s reaction was anything to go by, it won’t be the last.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari rejected the U.S. assertion, insisting that Baghdadi is real. “Al-Baghdadi is wanted and pursued. We know many things about him, and we even have his picture,” Askari said. However, he said he could not release a photograph or additional information because it could jeopardize attempts to capture Baghdadi.

The man known as Baghdadi emerged last year when Islamic State of Iraq was formed after the slaying of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

At first, I mistook the name Abu Omar Baghdadi for the name of his successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and I was quite confused, indeed. It would be quite a story if the leader of the Islamic State (aka, ISIL and ISIS) were someone that the Pentagon had declared a fictional being back in 2007.

But, then, I went back into my archives, and I found something else interesting that has now largely gone down the rabbit hole. And that is that U.S. military used a propaganda campaign to exaggerate the influence of Abu Musab Zarqawi. The purpose of this campaign was twofold. For the Iraqi audience it was to give them the impression that all the car bombs that were going off were to doings of foreigners, not a legitimate indigenous opposition to the occupation. For American audiences, the purpose was to link al-Qaeda to the war in Iraq in order to repair the damage done to the legitimacy of the cause once it was determined that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

THE US military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program.

The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush Administration tie the war to the organisation responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The documents say that the US campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. US authorities claim some success with the effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

For the past two years US military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicise Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the “US home audience” as a target of a broader propaganda campaign.

Lest you think I am dabbling in conspiratorial thinking, it was the Pentagon that argued that Abu Omar Baghdadi was a fictional character before celebrating his demise, and it was leaked military papers and transcripts that confirmed that the hype around Zarqawi was part of an organized psychological warfare campaign aimed, in part, at American audiences.

So, these two predecessors to the current head of the Islamic State were not quite what we were led to believe they were. It would seem wise, then, for the press to follow Peter Beinert’s suggestion that they use a greater degree of skepticism this time around than they demonstrated when we were first introduced to the Islamic State of Iraq. Whether that is happening or not is doubtful. For example, how many of the facts in Bobby Ghosh’s recent piece on Zarqawi for The Atlantic can we believe are free from the taint of the Pentagon’s psychological warfare program from back in 2005-2007 period? Personally, I don’t feel that I can believe any of it at face value.

Back when Al-Qaeda in Iraq was as much fiction as reality, I basically wrote off whatever the Bush administration had to say about them. But ISIS is definitely real now. They are definitely decimating communities and committing atrocities everywhere they go. But, if we are to understand them properly, we must remember their murky roots in lies and hype.

For the media to do its job today it must sift through the propaganda they served up to build a legend that was not accurate.

If a myth gave birth to this horrible reality, the media have to take a degree of responsibility for the role they played.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.