In the game of chess, the late Russian chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower said: "Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake." The same is true in war.
The evening of April 18, two important leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq — Abu Avyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi — were located and killed in a joint Iraqi-U.S. operation. Masri was successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the "Prince of al Qaeda in Iraq" — after he was killed by a U.S. air strike in June 2006. Baghdadi led an affiliate group of al Qaeda. These two names were big enough that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki felt compelled to announce their deaths on national television the next day.
The two terrorist masterminds were in a safe house in Salaheddin province, just west of Baghdad, when they were surrounded by ground forces in a nighttime raid. Masri and Baghdadi, their better judgment perhaps overshadowed by their burning desire for the promise of an afterlife with 72 virgins (each), responded with small arms fire. The two already were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and Americans and were not going to be allowed to add to that tally. Rockets pounded the house, leaving it in ruins. A search subsequently located the terrorists’ bodies in a hole in the ground under the house into which they had crawled and tried to hide.
The hunt for Baghdadi had been slowed by a ploy he had taken out of Saddam Hussein’s playbook. The late Iraqi dictator used "look-alikes" to appear in public periodically so would-be assassins would not know if the real Saddam was in their crosshairs. Similarly, Baghdadi had various cronies surface in public using his name to throw trackers off his trail. Unfortunately for Baghdadi, in the end it was his body and not that of a crony that was found in the demolished safe house. Al-Masri had also created tracking problems by using aliases. The commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, said of the operation, "The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency."
The raid yielded computers used to communicate with two of the world’s most wanted terrorists, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
It will be interesting to see how much of a blow these deaths will deal to al Qaeda’s reign of terror. But, between terrorist leaders who have been targeted in Iraq and, similarly, by numerous successful drone attacks against them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, those who live by the sword are finding their chances of dying by the sword are constantly increasing.
Our ability to locate, track and eliminate those terrorist leaders who seek to use death and destruction to destroy nations from within hinges on two main sources of intelligence gathering. One centers on those technologies that allow us to monitor movements and conversations of these targets or their family members and friends with whom they associate. An important source — one often providing an indispensable lead — is human intelligence, gleaned from the field or from "tipsters" fed up with the violence and resentful of insurgent actions.
An incident occurred in December 2004 that has proven deadly for the insurgents by providing a steady stream of tips from among the locals. It was then that Osama bin Ladin announced he had selected Zarqawi to serve as the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. This announcement caused such resentment among the Iraqis and against the insurgents that tips about insurgent activity began flowing in. Why? To better understand the resentment requires looking at Osama’s announcement from the Iraqi perspective. Osama — a Saudi-declared that Zarqawi-a Jordanian — would be in charge of killing Iraqis. This did not set well with the Iraqi people. The result has been the insurgency’s zenith in 2004 is its nadir today.
Osama did little to quell the resentment after Zarqawi’s death in 2006. Opting to replace the Jordanian Zarqawi with the Egyptian Masri, Osama only continued to feed it. And, while Baghdadi is an Iraqi name, the nationality of the name-bearer is unknown. It is believed it may simply be a "nom de guerre" given to disguise a foreign insurgent’s nationality to dispel further resentment among the Iraqis. Ironically, in this case, Masri’s and Baghdadi’s death warrant was executed by a fellow terrorist who disclosed the location of the safe house.
Al Qaeda has made a tremendous mistake in relying upon non-Iraqi leadership to conduct a violent insurgency in Iraq. We can only hope Osama fails to learn this lesson and appoints yet another foreigner as the next Prince of al Qaeda in Iraq. As the U.S. drawdown commences in August, this would guarantee the last mistake of the Iraq war — sealing defeat as Chessmaster Tartakower warned — would go to al Qaeda.