The Washington Times published an article on July 20 titled, “Elusive target: U.S. believed Iraq terror mastermind al-Baghdadi killed 3 times – Military intelligence error led to release of Islamic State leader in 2004”. The article highlighted a retired Army military intelligence officer and talked about al-Baghdadi being an elusive target:
During the early days of the Sunni insurgency, the U.S. picked up al-Baghdadi in February 2004 in Fallujah. In their possession was a murderous jihadist and mullah committed to both Zarqawi and bin Laden. The problem was that the command did not have a centralized database from which review boards could read all about him.
“What we did not have was good detainee packages on those folks that provided circumstances — why they were arrested, who they were arrested with,” Mr. Harvey said. “It was a real failing of the procedures.”
By December 2004, al-Baghdadi’s review board had no choice but to release him unconditionally, the Pentagon said. Within months, as intelligence started to improve, the command discovered that Abu Du’a was one of the most vicious Zarqawi operatives. . . .
In 2005, U.S. forces fired a missile on a house in northern Iraq and then issued a press release saying he was likely killed. A week later, they found out he was not. . . .
In 2010, he tricked the allies again. The coalition announced on state TV the arrest of Abu Du’a in Fallujah and, thus, the end of al Qaeda in Iraq, which he then ran. Whomever they captured was not Abu Du’a.
Yet an article from The Daily Beast on June 14 seems to conflict with several points of The Washington Times article. An excerpt from “ISIS Leader: ‘See You in New York’” made the following claims:
The Islamist extremist some are now calling the most dangerous man in the world had a few parting words to his captors as he was released from the biggest U.S. detention camp in Iraq in 2009. . . .
King had not imagined that in less that five years he would be seeing news reports that al-Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS, the ultra-extremist army that was sweeping through Iraq toward Baghdad.
“I’m not surprised that it was someone who spent time in Bucca but I’m a little surprised it was him,” King says. “He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.” . . .
During the four years that al-Baghdadi was in custody, there had been no way for the Americans to predict what a danger he would become. Al-Baghdadi hadn’t even been assigned to Compound 14, which was reserved for the most virulently extremist Sunnis.
If al-Baghdadi was released from custody in 2004 and 2009, wouldn’t that mean he was in U.S. custody at least twice, contradicting the article from The Washington Times? And if the U.S. figured out al-Baghdadi was extremely dangerous shortly after it released him in 2004 and had been trying to kill him since 2005, why would the soldier quoted in The Daily Beast article say that the U.S. had no idea how bad he was when it released him in 2009? Also, according to The Daily Beast article the al-Baghdadi the U.S. released in 2009 had been in U.S. custody for four years . . . which would mean that he would’ve been captured by the U.S. in 2005—the same time The Washington Times article claims the U.S. was hunting him after recently releasing him.
Others noticed this too and checked into it. The Daily Beast article is likely wrong.
PolitiFact / PunditFact published, “ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was ‘released by Obama in 2009’,” on June 14 (the same date The Daily Beast published its article) and wrote the following:
There have been several articles – from Slate, and NBC among others – that place Baghdadi at a detention facility in Iraq called Camp Bucca in 2009 (when Obama would have been president). However, all the talk tracks back to a Daily Beast interview with Army Col. Kenneth King, the former commander of Camp Bucca. That article said King knew Baghdadi at the camp and that he didn’t expect to see him become the leader of a spectacularly vicious and brutal movement.
“I’m not surprised that it was someone who spent time in Bucca but I’m a little surprised it was him,” King said. “He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.”
In this storyline, Baghdadi was handed over to Iraqi justice system late in 2009 shortly before Camp Bucca closed.
However, when PunditFact asked the Defense Department to confirm the story, officials there said Baghdadi was released in 2004, not 2009.
“Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Al Badry, also known as ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’ was held as a ‘civilian internee’ by U.S. Forces-Iraq from early February 2004 until early December 2004, when he was released,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “He was held at Camp Bucca. A Combined Review and Release Board recommended ‘unconditional release’ of this detainee and he was released from U.S. custody shortly thereafter. We have no record of him being held at any other time.”
McClatchy agreed with the PolitiFact / PunditFact story on July 9 when it published, “Unprepared U.S. officials missed Baghdadi’s likely al Qaida connection during 2004 detention”:
In the past weeks, as Baghdadi’s prominent role in Iraq emerged, many media organizations, including McClatchy, incorrectly reported that he had been held at Camp Bucca for years and released during the Obama administration. But the Pentagon said its records show that was not true and that he was held for a relatively short time when the U.S. presence in Iraq was still young.
Both The Daily Beast and The Washington Times articles were based on interviews with former government officials who directly worked in Iraq during a time when al-Baghdadi was also active. The confusion over who he is and when the government actually held him shows just how difficult it still is to identify and track terrorists. And this confusion should cause people to ask the question: Does anyone, including the U.S. government, know for sure who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is?
This might seem like a ridiculous question at first but a quick look back at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that it really isn’t.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was the leader of the Islamic State (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq) prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And while the U.S. armed forces eventually killed him, it took a long time for the U.S. to figure out exactly who he was. In fact, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was nothing more than a nom de guerre used by more than one person.
The Long War Journal published, “Islamic State of Iraq – an al Qaeda front,” on July 18, 2007. The article noted many interesting things, including the following:
During interrogations, Mashadani admitted that the Islamic State of Iraq was merely a puppet front group established by al Qaeda in order to put an Iraqi face on the insurgency. Mashadani cofounded the Islamic State of Iraq with al-Masri in 2006. “The Islamic State of Iraq is a ‘front’ organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within AQI in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of AQI,” said Brig. Gen Bergner.
But not only is the Islamic State of Iraq a contrived entity, its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, is as well. “To further this myth [of the Islamic State of Iraq], al Masri created a fictional political head of ISI known as Omar al-Baghdadi,” said Brig. Gen Bergner. Al-Baghdadi is actually played by an actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima, and al Masri “maintains exclusive control over al Naima as he acts the part of the fictitious al-Baghdadi character.”
As funny and far-fetched as that might seem, the U.S. might have believed that was true.
The Long War Journal published, “US and Iraqi forces kill Al Masri and Baghdadi, al Qaeda in Iraq’s top two leaders,” on April 19, 2010 after U.S. forces killed al-Masri and the man then going by the name Abu Omar al-Baghdadi:
Al Masri was officially listed as the minister of defense for the Islamic State of Iraq, according to a press release put out by the terror group in April 2007. But over the summer of 2007, it became known the Islamic State of Iraq was the invention of al Masri.
Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, and there has been much controversy over his identity over the years. In 2007 the US military said Baghdadi was a fictitious leader created by al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq was created in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on al Qaeda’s foreign-led movement and unite the disparate Sunni Islamist and insurgent groups.
Baghdadi was played by an Iraqi actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima, the military stated. This was confirmed after the capture and interrogation of Khalid al Mashadani, then al Qaeda’s media emir. Al Qaeda’s appointment of an anonymous caliph, or leader, caused rifts in the Sunni insurgency, and along with al Qaeda’s brutal tactics, turned many tribes and insurgent groups away from the terror organization.
The US military’s claim that Baghdadi was a fictitious character was challenged in May of 2008 after Haditha’s police chief identified Baghdadi as Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi, a former officer who was “dismissed from the army because of his extremism.”
The US military believes that al Qaeda quickly backfilled the position of Baghdadi after the Naima charade was disclosed last year. The move was made to stem any embarrassment in having al Qaeda’s appointed caliph of Iraq being played by an actor.”
So not only did The Long War Journal believe the U.S. armed forces confirmed that an actor was the original Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and that a second, actual terrorist eventually assumed his role, but there might have been a third person also going by the same name.
Some might argue that was a relatively long time ago and even if the U.S. had trouble figuring out who Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was it certainly must know who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is. After all, it must have biometrically enrolled Abu Bakr when it had captured him in the 2000s. Maybe. But maybe not.
Some in the media certainly think the U.S. might have his biometric information. NBC published, “The Secret Life of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” in June and had the following to say:
His biometrics may have been cataloged by the soldiers who kept him locked up at Camp Bucca in Iraq — where he was recalled as “savvy” but not particularly dangerous — but few details about his life and insurgent career have been nailed down.
“They know physically who this guy is, but his backstory is just myth,” said Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.
Yet a report from McClatchy in July suggests the U.S. might not have his biometrics:
At the time, two military police who worked at the facility told McClatchy, the U.S. military was still fine-tuning procedures at Camp Bucca, even as scores of detainees were arriving. The MPs spoke to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about their work at the detention center.
The U.S. military hadn’t maintained detention centers for wartime prisoners since the Korean War and “reinvented the wheel,” in the words of one.
It wasn’t until 2006, long after Baghdadi had been released, that the U.S. began keeping detailed records on it detainees, including collecting biometrics to help in identifying individuals who, like Baghdadi, might be using a number of aliases.
Based on my own experience, 2006 seems about right for when biometrics really began to take off in the military and intelligence communities. So it’s possible the U.S. doesn’t have Abu Bakr’s biometrics but that’s far from certain. Still, it’s something worth considering.
Then there is the video that supposedly showed Abu Bakr making his first public appearance since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant became the Islamic State. News outlets initially reported that it was Abu Bakr. But the Iraqis apparently don’t think that it was:
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan told Reuters that the footage posted on the Internet on Saturday allegedly showing Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi at Mosul’s grand mosque was “indisputably” not him.
“We have analyzed the footage ... and found it is a farce,” he said.
Maan said government forces had recently wounded Baghdadi in an air strike and that he had been transferred by Islamic State militants to Syria for medical treatment. He declined to give further details and there was no way to confirm the claim independently.
So is the general right? Again, maybe. But maybe not. The Iraqis will lie to make themselves look good. And claiming that Baghdadi was injured by the Iraqis and now is being treated in Syria certainly would make the Iraqis look good even as it is highly questionable. And that would make the general’s claim about the man in the video not being Baghdadi questionable as well.
But the general’s claim cannot be outright dismissed. The Iraqis released a photo of the person they claim is Abu Bakr. Compare it to the official U.S. photo of Abu Bakr (still listed as Abu Du’a) at the “Rewards for Terror” website. They look similar yet there appear to be differences as well. Is it the same person? It think it’s impossible to say without the help of some serious biometric facial recognition analysis. And if it isn’t the same person, which government has the right photograph? The U.S. government or Iraqi government?
One problem with all that has been analyzed here is that it is based solely on open-source intelligence. The U.S. government must have intelligence from other disciplines and generally better intelligence. That’s certainly a possibility but it’s not necessarily true. After all, the U.S. government doesn’t have a flawless track record on positively identifying terrorists.
In fact, The Long War Journal at one time thought the U.S. government had been so bad at trying to determine Afghan terrorist leaders that it actually started losing confidence in it in certain situations. From, “Is the US really negotiating with the Afghan Taliban?” back in 2011:
We don’t write about talks about talks with the Taliban any longer, because it always turns out that the US/ISAF, etc. are talking to wannabe Taliban officials who have long since been denounced by the Taliban, or to individuals who claim they are close to the Taliban leadership, or even with impostors.
On that last point, Gates admits he’s not even sure the US is speaking to “genuine representatives of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.” Here’s hoping they aren’t like the “Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour” impostor who fooled US and British officials last year into thinking he was the real deal.
Or perhaps they’re again talking to Mutawakil, Zaeef, and company, who always seem to resurface at times like this. (For more about past follies with negotiations with the Taliban, see Threat Matrix report, Taliban talks and Groundhog Day.)”
It’s not possible to say for sure that no one knows for sure who Abu Bakr is. In fact, it very well may be true that Abu Du’a—Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai—actually is or was the original Abu Bakr, even as most people seem to agree that his background is vague. But whether he still is alive, what he now looks like, where he is, and whether the U.S. has accurate biometric information on him are probably entirely different questions—especially considering the history of other terrorist leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan.