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 Force-Iraq 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-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.
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.
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.
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.”
It added: “While Abu Du’a’s body has not yet been recovered, the airstrike effectively destroyed the building he was believed to be in.”
Five years later, the coalition believed again that it had neutralized al-Baghdadi.
In December 2010, an Iraqi general went on state-run TV to announce Abu Du’a’s arrest in Anbar province.
“We managed to arrest most of the commanders of [the] al Qaeda organization in [the] Al-Anbar Governorate,” the general said, according to the BBC. “And this led us to arrest Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who goes under the nom de guerre Abu Du’a, and who is considered to be the mastermind of this organization.”
He added: “We affirm that the ISI has begun to collapse and, God willing, it will no longer have any presence on the Iraqi soil.”
The Pentagon has no record that he was held in 2010. Ten months later, the State Department declared him a global terrorist and put a bounty on his head.
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