When released by U.S., he said, “I will see you in New York.”
By Mark Ellis
The most wanted terrorist in the world, who now controls a broad swath of central Syria and Iraq, was once imprisoned by U.S. forces and released.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now has the attention of the U.S. after his forces captured Iraq’s second-largest city and are threatening Baghdad. U.S.-trained Iraqi forces threw down their weapons and fled in the face of his advance on Mosul.
His discharge from U.S. custody five years ago may intensify the debate about the recent release of five high-ranking terrorist leaders from Guantanamo in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Time Magazine calls al-Baghdadi “ the most dangerous man in the world” and Le Monde says he is “the new bin Laden.”
Born a Sunni, al-Baghdadi is said to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. “He is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and professors of Arabic language, rhetoric and logic,” according to a jihadist biography cited by The Washington Post.
Al-Baghdadi earned a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad in Islamic studies and history, and was an Islamic preacher at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
After the invasion, he was drawn into al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, first by smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq, according to The Guardian.
Later he became the “emir” of Rawa, a town near the Syrian border, where he presided over a sharia court, and gained a reputation for brutality, publicly executing anyone suspected of assisting U.S. forces.
Al-Baghdadi preached at several mosques and also led several smaller militant groups before being promoted to a seat on a council of the mujahedeen and judicial councils of the Islamic State in Iraq, which promoted Baghdadi to succeed its two former leaders.
In 2005, he was captured by U.S. forces and spent the next four years as a prisoner at the Bucca Camp in southern Iraq, according to The Washington Post. Some believe the four years he was held at Camp Bucca inflamed his radicalization.
At the camp, he met and trained with key al-Qaeda fighters, according to Al-Monitor.
Camp Bucca once held about 26,000 inmates, many of whom were Islamic extremists and factional leaders in the sectarian war that devastated Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Prisoners described the conditions at the desert compound as harsh, according to The Guardian.
Inmates at Camp Bucca were segregated into Sunni and Shia areas. Critics of the facility say it became a terror-training institute, run by aggrieved inmates under a severe interpretation of Islamic law.
“It is al-Qa’ida central down there,” Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, a tribal leader from Anbar province told The Guardian. “What better way to teach everyone how to become fanatical than put them all together for scant reason, then deprive them?”
The US military began releasing 1,000 prisoners per month before it closed the facility in September, 2009. Some faced the Iraqi justice system, but the majority of those released – including al-Baghdadi – faced no further charges.
When al-Baghdadi was released by the U.S., he said, “I’ll see you in New York,” according to ABC News.
Al-Baghdadi gained enough respect after his release, that by 2010, he assumed control of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In a dispute with al-Qaeda’s leadership, he broke away and assumed control over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
When al-Baghdadi broke away from al-Qaeda’s leadership in June 2013, he said, “I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter.” Zawahiri tried, but failed to bring the rogue commander back into line.
“The true heir to Osama bin Laden may be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” wrote The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. He is “more violent, more virulent, more anti-American,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Post.
For the last 10 years, al-Qaeda head Zawahiri has been hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn’t done much more than release a few statements and videos,” a former British foreign intelligence chief told Agence France-Presse.
“Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount — he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria…. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”
Some believe he may soon establish himself as emir of a new Islamic state — a caliphate.
“ISIS’s rise at the expense of Zawahiri’s movement signals that a new, more dangerous hybrid based on state development by wrecking everything in its path is emerging from the Syrian terrorist incubator,” wrote Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“Ultimately, ISIS seeks to create an Islamic state from where they would launch a global holy war. Perhaps that war is now beginning as Baghdadi’s ISIS eclipses Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda.”