On April 23, 2009 the Iraqi government claimed they had arrested Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the prince of the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group created by Al Qaeda in Iraq to give it a more local character. The authorities said they captured him in the Resafa district of Baghdad. Baghdadi has been the public voice of the Islamic State, releasing several speeches. The Iraqis have not allowed the Americans to talk to the detainee, and there are serious doubts that this is really Baghdadi. Instead, it appears that the government made up this story to make it seem like they were doing something to counter the rash of bombings that hit the capital in April 2009.
The Iraqi government has been bragging about the capture of Baghdadi since the end of April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed his arrest on April 27, and said that the security forces had been tracking him for two months. Later, the Iraqi Defense Minister told parliament that his identity had been confirmed. On May 18 the government released a taped confession by Baghdadi. In the recording he claimed to be 40 years old, and a former employee at the Commission for Military Industrialization under Saddam. He said his real name was Ahmad Abid Ahmad Khames al-Majmai from Diyala. He stated that he joined Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005, and became the leader of the Islamic State in 2006. He went on to say that his organization received funding from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, and that his group and the Baathists worked together with the help of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Finally, he stated that an associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gave him orders to carry on with the sectarian war. Conveniently the government seemed to not only capture the head of the most notorious terrorist and insurgent group in the country, but one that admitted to everything from foreign funding, to connections to Saddam and the Baathists, to the civil war.
Following up on that, Maliki’s supporters touted the arrest to the press. Maliki’s media advisor Yasin Majid said that Baghdadi’s arrest was more important than the capture of Saddam, and that it proved that the Iraqi security forces could handle the country after the U.S. withdrawal. A Dawa parliamentarian went on to claim that the detention could realign Iraq’s politics as it linked the Baathists, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in the country.
Quickly problems began developing with the government’s story however. First, before the taped confession was released, Minister of National Security Shirwan al-Waili gave a completely different story of Baghdadi’s alleged background. The Minister claimed that his real name was Maad Ibrahim Muhammad, who was a former colonel in the Republican Guard until 1990. He was tried and sentenced to death for membership in an Islamist group by Saddam’s government, but was then released and kicked out of the army. He then went on a foreign trip to Syria, Algeria, and Morocco, before returning to Iraq in 2004. There he joined Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq. He was then caught by the Americans in 2007 and held at Camp Bucca, the main U.S. prison camp, for one and a half years. He was later released under the February 2008 Amnesty Law. He was picked again, this time by the Iraqis, but bribed an officer to obtain his release. Not only was this dramatically different from the taped confession, but according to Nibras Kazimi of Talisman Gate and the Hudson Institute, conflicts with Baghdadi’s released speeches. He put out most of his speeches during 2007, which would mean he recorded many of them while in a U.S. prison. Kazimi found a Maad Ibrahim Muhammad on a list of prisoners released under the amnesty law, but he was in Diyala, not Baghdad as Waili’s story claimed.
To counter the government’s claim, the insurgents released two speeches by Baghdadi refuting his arrest. In the first one, he claimed the government was playing games claiming that he was captured and releasing a picture of someone the Islamic State did not know. A member of the SITE Intelligence Group and Kazimi both said that the voice, style and tone of the tape were like the others made by Baghdadi. The Iraqi authorities have dismissed the recording. After that, another tape was aired on Al Jazeera ridiculing the government again saying their confession was a fake, and that they had aired two different stories of who he allegedly was.
In Anbar, the provincial police chief and Awakening leaders also claim they are tracking the “real” Baghdadi. Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, one of the Awakening heads in Anbar, and the Anbar police chief told the Los Angeles Times that they didn’t believe the man held by the authorities was the real insurgent leader. Instead, they said they were tracking Baghdadi across their province.
The Americans have had no say on the matter because the Iraqi government has not allowed them to see the captured man. In July 2007 however, the U.S. military said that Baghdadi was a fake name made up by the Islamic State. The group hired an actor to play his part. Afterwards, it’s believed the insurgents placed a real person in that position to take up the role of Baghdadi.
The Iraqis also have a history of making up stories about capturing top Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders. In 2007 they claimed to have eliminated Baghdadi, but it turned out to be an insurgent leader that had been killed by the U.S. instead. The Iraqis confiscated his body before it was buried, and tried to make a story out of it.
The character Baghdadi originally appeared three years ago. In January 2006 it was announced that Zarqawi had stepped aside for an Iraqi named Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi. It was said that he was a relative of the Prophet Mohammed to give him religious standing, and his name was to give the foreign led insurgent group an Iraqi character. Baghdadi was given the leadership position of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, an umbrella insurgent organization of militants. Zarqawi was later killed and replaced by an Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri. He went on to form the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006 with Baghdadi still the nominal leader.
The major cause of the story of Baghdadi’s capture is probably the return of mass casualty attacks to Iraq recently. April 2009 witnessed a series of bombings that killed almost 200 people. The papers were full of stories of Iraqis worried that violence was increasing, and that the sectarian war might be renewed since most of the victims were Shiites. That put intense pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to do something, especially because he ran in the January 2009 provincial elections partially on his security crackdowns. That is the likely reason why the government hatched this story of capturing the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Not happy with just that, Maliki is now trying to make it a political matter by criticizing the Islamic Party by saying they are connected to the terrorists. The man the authorities hold could very well be an insurgent leader, but there are simply too many wholes and questions in the story to believe what Baghdad is saying about him. Not only that but the Prime Minister is now playing a dangerous political game with the capture, which could have serious repercussions for him down the road.
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Aswat al-Iraq, “Top gunmen confessed to Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi funding – BOC,” 5/18/09
Babylon & Beyond Blog, “IRAQ: Abu Omar Baghdadi speaks?” Los Angeles Times, 5/13/09
Chulov, Martin, “Wave of bombings kills up to 70 as al-Qaida chief is caught,” Guardian, 4/23/09
Kazimi, Nibras, “’Al-Baghdad’ on TV,” Talisman Gate Blog, 5/18/09
- “Al-Baghdadi’s Sixteenth Speech,” Talisman Gate Blog, 5/12/09
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- “More Twists in the ‘al-Baghdadi’ Sage,” Talisman Gate Blog, 5/22/09
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- “Islamic State of Iraq leader reported captured,” Long War Journal, 4/23/09
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Sly, Liz, “Even in custody, Abu Omar al Baghdadi proves elusive,” Los Angeles Times, 5/15/09
- “In Baghdad, dread grows with death toll,” Los Angeles Times, 5/2/09
- “Rifts deepen within Iraq’s insurgency,” Chicago Tribune, 1/24/06