WASHINGTON – A senior leader of al-Qaida in Iraq responsible for bringing foreign fighters into the country and seizing and executing U.S. soldiers in 2006 was killed Monday in an American airstrike, the U.S. military said Friday.
The death of the leader, a native of Tunisia who went by the pseudonym Abu Usama al-Tunisi, represents a “significant blow” to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, which is increasingly “fractured,” Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, told a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. military commanders in Iraq say their gains against the Sunni insurgent group may be causing al-Qaida leaders outside the country to reconsider whether Iraq should remain their main front or whether to shift resources elsewhere, such as to Afghanistan.
“I think they are assessing their ability to disrupt coalition and government of Iraq,” Anderson said. “They’re going back to Afghanistan where this thing all originated, and potentially … expand their operations there.”
Some terrorism experts disagree, however, saying that leaders of al-Qaida’s international terrorist network, such as Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, have always viewed the Iraq war as a way to keep the U.S. military preoccupied so the network could regroup.
“The al-Qaida strategy all along was to enmesh us in Iraq while it gained strength in Afghanistan, so I don’t see that as a change, I see it as a fruition of al-Qaida’s strategy,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Hoffman said the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, which is composed primarily of Iraqis, is “clearly … tactically more challenged than it’s ever been” because of the U.S. military troop increase in Iraq. But he questioned whether the tactical success would have a lasting, strategic impact.
In a related development, the Government Accountability Office released a report Friday on violence trends in Iraq for August. It said the data, while not complete, were “sufficiently reliable” and showed that “the average number of daily attacks decreased to 123 in August 2007 – the lowest level since June 2006 when the average number of attacks was 121 per day.” But the GAO report noted that attacks in Iraq normally increase during the month of Ramadan, which this year began on Sept. 13.
Al-Tunisi was killed east of the town of Karbala in an airstrike Tuesday by a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter, according to the military. He was one of 23 insurgents killed and 54 detained in a series of raids south and west of Baghdad between Sept. 12 and Tuesday, it said.