Is­lamic State leader for­merly U.S. cap­tive

Al-Bagh­dadi was re­leased un­con­di­tion­ally a decade ago

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

The U.S. held him cap­tive for a time in 2004 be­fore an un­con­di­tional re­lease put him back into Iraq’s grow­ing Sunni in­sur­gency.

A year later, the Multi-Na­tional ForceIraq la­beled him a kid­nap­per and mur­derer. It boasted of prob­a­bly killing him in an airstrike, only to find out it hadn’t.

In 2010, the coali­tion an­nounced his ar­rest. But who­ever it held, it ei­ther was not Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, or he some­how won quick re­lease.

The elu­sive al-Bagh­dadi, known then by his nom de guerre, Abu Du’a, would go on to be­come the most dom­i­nant fig­ure in to­day’s rad­i­cal Is­lamic move­ment.

A Sunni mul­lah who is in his early 40s and re­port­edly hails from Fal­lu­jah or Sa­marra, al-Bagh­dadi com­mands his own ter­ror­ist army and con­trols much of Iraq north and west of the cap­i­tal, Bagh­dad, as well as a smat­ter­ing of towns in Syria.

He also has de­clared the es­tab­lish­ment of a new coun­try — the Is­lamic State.

Some sug­gest he is the next Osama bin Laden but with his own ex­pe­di­tionary land force. Last week, De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel upped the ante on a pos­si­ble war against the Is­lamic State by call­ing it an im­mi­nent threat to the United States.

“He’s a hard-core ji­hadist,” said re­tired Army Lt. Gen. Wil­liam Boykin, who was the Pen­tagon’s No. 2 in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. “He has been able to ap­peal to those who have felt that al Qaeda was on the ropes af­ter the killing of bin Laden, and he was able to step in and bring back the pride and the de­ter­mi­na­tion of those who re­ally were hard-core ji­hadists.

“As a re­sult, he’s been able to build a strong net­work of pretty evil people.”

On Sun­day, Is­lamic State in­sur­gents rolled un­op­posed into the town of Du­luiyan, 45 miles north of Bagh­dad, and seized the mayor’s of­fice, po­lice sta­tion, city hall and court­house, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

They also blew up a bridge that links the town with the pre­dom­i­nantly Shi­ite city of Balad nearby.

Iraq’s mil­i­tary launched a coun­ter­at­tack that drove the mil­i­tants from part of Du­luiyah, but clashes were still rag­ing around the po­lice sta­tion and mayor’s of­fice Sun­day.

Al Qaeda in Iraq

Al-Bagh­dadi be­gan as a rank-and-file in­sur­gent fight­ing Amer­i­cans in Fal­lu­jah, then joined al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) un­der Jor­da­nian Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi. Al-Bagh­dadi spe­cial­ized in fun­nel­ing for­eign fighters and sui­cide bombers from Syria into Iraq to kill civil­ians, Shi­ites and Amer­i­cans.

The U.S. killed al-Zar­qawi in a 2006 airstrike, a death that moved al-Bagh­dadi up the chain of com­mand.

In April 2010, the U.S. scored an­other big blow, killing al-Zar­qawi’s suc­ces­sor, Abu Ab­dul­lah Rashid Bagh­dadi as he hid in a safe house in Tikrit.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki per­son­ally an­nounced the killing as of­fi­cials spoke of the demise of al Qaeda in Iraq.

The as­sess­ment was pre­ma­ture. Abu Ab­dul­lah Rashid Bagh­dadi’s death marked the last ma­jor hit against AQI and its new Is­lamic State of Iraq (ISI). The U.S. troop pres­ence grew short, and coun­tert­er­ror­ism was be­ing handed over to the Iraqis, who would prove to be in­com­pe­tent.

Al-Bagh­dadi, a reclu­sive leader rarely men­tioned in the news me­dia, took over. Based in Mo­sul, he showed him­self to be as ruth­less as his fore­run­ners but per­haps more vi­sion­ary. He viewed the or­ga­ni­za­tion as not just ter­ror­ists but as an army that could take ter­ri­tory and form an Is­lamic na­tion, or caliphate. And he as­sem­bled a po­tent pro­pa­ganda ma­chine.

He molded his fighters in his im­age — Mus­lims will­ing to in­flict mass killings and be­head­ings on other Mus­lims in the name of Al­lah and harsh Shariah law.

Al-Bagh­dadi’s work as a for­eign fighter fa­cil­i­ta­tor early in the Iraq in­sur­gency pro­vided the con­nec­tions he needed to build a 10,000-strong army that could ex­ploit the Syr­ian civil war across the bor­der while surg­ing for a ma­jor of­fen­sive in­side Iraq.

Waves of at­tacks

When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, he sprung a new war against Bagh­dad, con­duct­ing as­sas­si­na­tions and de­ploy­ing car bombs in syn­chro­nized at­tacks.

As head of the then-ISI, he an­nounced the start of the “De­stroy­ing the Walls” cam­paign of vi­o­lence to wrest con­trol of north­ern Iraqi cities.

“Two days later, a mas­sive wave of at­tacks struck over 20 Iraqi [cities] and left more than 115 dead,” said a re­port by the Wash­ing­ton-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War. “The ‘De­stroy­ing the Walls’ cam­paign in­di­cates the de­gree to which ISI has grown in its abil­ity to plan, co­or­di­nate and ex­e­cute at­tacks since the with­drawal of U.S. forces.”

Dis­play­ing a new abil­ity to co­or­di­nate at­tacks, ISI det­o­nated 30 ve­hi­cle bombs nearly si­mul­ta­ne­ously in 20 dif­fer­ent cities. More waves of at­tacks fol­lowed as Iraqi forces showed them­selves to be in­ca­pable of find­ing and tar­get­ing ter­ror­ists de­spite years of U.S. guid­ance.

A for­mer Pen­tagon of­fi­cial called the Iraqis “the best check­point army in the world,” mean­ing they had no stomach for dan­ger­ous coun­tert­er­ror­ism raids.

Mean­while, Syria’s civil war had be­gun in the spring of 2011. Al-Bagh­dadi’s fighters be­gan mov­ing freely from Iraq to Syria and back as his army swelled. Thus was born the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant (ISIL), the pre­cur­sor of the Is­lamic State.

“ISIL is the new face of al Qaeda and rad­i­cal Is­lam,” said re­tired Army Gen. John Keane, an ad­viser to U.S. com­man­ders dur­ing the Iraq coun­terin­sur­gency. “They are ac­com­plish­ing what the 9/11 al Qaeda al­ways dreamed about un­til they over­reached and at­tacked the Amer­i­can people. ISIL in­tends to desta­bi­lize the Mid­dle East and then dom­i­nate it re­gard­less of whether a coun­try [has] a Shia or Sunni ma­jor­ity.”

‘More ca­pa­ble, dan­ger­ous’

An­a­lysts say the Is­lamic State is the most savvy ter­ror­ist group in ex­ploit­ing so­cial me­dia and get­ting its mes­sages and im­ages out via the tra­di­tional press.

In April, two months be­fore it launched the cur­rent of­fen­sive, the Is­lamic State took the un­prece­dented step of pub­lish­ing a 400-page list of all its at­tacks — sort of an an­nual cor­po­rate re­port on mur­der and mayhem.

“The in­sights gleaned from the ISIL’s ac­count­ing of its op­er­a­tions, even al­low­ing for some ex­ag­ger­a­tion in their own reporting, in­di­cate the group is more ca­pa­ble, dan­ger­ous and or­ga­nized than most main­stream me­dia out­lets gave it credit for prior to this month’s alarm­ing ac­tiv­ity, and it will likely re­main so re­gard­less of how the short-term mil­i­tary cam­paign ends,” said a re­port by the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point, New York.

The U.S. now has a $10 mil­lion bounty on al-Bagh­dadi’s head for in­for­ma­tion leading to his cap­ture.

But the hunt is limited. When the U.S. dis­pensed with al-Zar­qawi and his suc­ces­sor, it em­ployed the full might of Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand and a host of in­tel­li­gence as­sets. Those man­hunt­ing el­e­ments have since packed up and gone home.

If those as­sets could not kill al-Bagh­dadi be­tween 2005 and 2011, there is doubt that Iraq’s se­cu­rity forces, aided by limited U.S. in­tel­li­gence, can find him to­day. He has proven slip­pery. The al­lies picked him up in Fe­bru­ary 2004 in Fal­lu­jah as Sunni mil­i­tants were or­ga­niz­ing a ter­ror­ist cell to seize the town. A month later, they killed four Black­wa­ter se­cu­rity guards and mu­ti­lated the bod­ies — a har­bin­ger of the long war that lay ahead for con­trol of Iraq.

A Pen­tagon state­ment last week re­ferred to Fal­lu­jah as Bagh­dadi’s home­town. Other sources say he is from Sa­marra, a town of 350,000 north of Fal­lu­jah, where he was said to preach and study Is­lam.

The Pen­tagon said au­thor­i­ties gave him an “un­con­di­tional re­lease” 10 months later in De­cem­ber 2004 on the rec­om­men­da­tion of what was called the Com­bined Re­view and Re­lease Board.

There are no records to in­di­cate he was ever held again in a coali­tion prison, the Pen­tagon said. A for­mer Army of­fi­cer has been quoted in news sto­ries as say­ing al-Bagh­dadi was held at Camp Bucca un­til 2009, when he was re­leased as the prison was be­ing shut down and cap­tives trans­ferred to Iraqi con­trol.

The com­mand in 2004 ap­par­ently did not know it con­trolled one of the most ruth­lessly com­mit­ted in­sur­gents loyal to bin Laden.

Within months, he was go­ing by the name Abu Du’a and was in the busi­ness of try­ing and ex­e­cut­ing Iraqis in Qaim, a bor­der town near Syria.

Al-Bagh­dadi’s rep­u­ta­tion for kid­nap­ping and mur­der was such that when the U.S. com­mand thought it had killed him in Oc­to­ber 2005, it put out a press re­lease.

Hard to kill

“Coali­tion forces con­ducted an airstrike that hit a ter­ror­ist safe house and likely killed a se­nior al Qaeda in Iraq for­eign fighter fa­cil­i­ta­tor in al Ushsh, near al Qaim, Oc­to­ber 26,” said the press re­lease. “In­tel­li­gence sources in­di­cate that Abu Du’a, who helped Syr­ian and Saudis en­ter Iraq to in­tim­i­date and kill Iraqi cit­i­zens, was in the house at the time of the strike.”

The com­mand state­ment marked one of the most ex­ten­sive pub­lic profiles of al-Bagh­dadi un­til years later, when he emerged as AQI leader.

“Ac­cord­ing to in­tel­li­gence sources, Du’a was con­nected to the in­tim­i­da­tion, tor­ture and mur­der of lo­cal civil­ians in the al Qaim area,” the com­mand press re­lease said. “Du’a held re­li­gious courts to try lo­cal cit­i­zens charged with sup­port­ing the Iraqi govern­ment and coali­tion forces. He would kid­nap in­di­vid­u­als or en­tire fam­i­lies, ac­cuse them, pro­nounce sen­tence and then pub­licly ex­e­cute them.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, leader of the al Qaeda splin­ter group the Is­lamic State, has rarely been pho­tographed.

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