This person was one of us. He was raised and fed among us,” says an intrepid journalist whose recent documentary on the leader of ISIS reveals an intelligent man who grew up outside of Baghdad, playing football and leading prayers at the local mosque.
The leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a speech an ISIS overrun mosque in what would be a rare – if not the first – public appearance by the shadowy militant.
BEIRUT — In terms of the American occupation of Iraq and the United States’ current plans to start training fighters in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, there are no more choices in the Middle East, according to Ali Hashem.
Hashem is the chief correspondent for Al Mayadeen, a pan-Arab news channel based in Beirut. He recently completed a 50-minute documentary about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Speaking with MintPress News, he explained that everything happening right now, including the U.S. training and arming rebel fighters, promotes the destruction of the entire Middle East region.
“It already happened before in Afghanistan and we saw the results,” Hashem said. “The moderate fighters, who were backed and armed by the United States, turned out to be the hijackers of the 9/11 planes.”
“I’m afraid that we’re just going into the same cycle once again.”
Herein lies one of the greatest problems in dealing with ISIS. Hashem explained:
“The fact is ISIS is getting bigger and bigger. It’s not only now about Iraq. If ISIS is destroyed in Iraq, you still have ISIS in Syria. And if it’s destroyed in Syria, it’s in Libya, and it’s in Nigeria, and it’s in Egypt. So they’re expanding.”
On Saturday, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, proclaimed allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the so-called “caliph” of ISIS. In an audio statement posted to Twitter, Shekau said, “We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity,” according to the BBC.
When it comes to countering ISIS, Hashem urges a different approach. “It’s not about them being fought,” he told MintPress. He suggests that the group should be combated intellectually, and the roots of this radicalization movement need to be tackled ideologically. “Otherwise,” he said, “they are just killing people.”
Many of the arms ISIS has at its disposal come from U.S. arms flowing into the region, according to a September report by Conflict Armament Research. As that report also notes, the group possesses a significant number of Russian- and Chinese-manufactured weapons as well. In July, Business Insider reported that the group “fields” weapons from those countries, plus the Balkans and Iran.
The Falcon Cell and the Iraqi army’s recent attempt to kill al-Baghdadi
Hashem’s documentary, “Searching for al-Baghdadi,” highlights an operation by an Iraqi intelligence unit known as the “Falcon Cell,” that attempted to kill al-Baghdadi in November in Al-Qa’im, Iraq, a town that borders Syria.
The unit did not succeed in its mission, however, because of an organizational mishap. Hashem wrote in The Sunday Times:
“The order was given to the Iraqi air force to strike the school, but the defence ministry took no action. Slighted by the refusal of the Falcons to reveal the identity of the target, defence officials waited for an hour before the office of the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, intervened.”
By that time, it was too late and the air force ended up firing upon a moving convoy of the ISIS leadership. Al-Baghdadi’s personal bodyguard, Abu Mohannad, was killed. Al-Baghdadi suffered injuries to his stomach and back, but he was able to find safety across the border in Syria.
“The opportunity to eliminate the entire leadership of the richest and best-equipped terrorist group in the world had been lost to a petty bureaucratic dispute,” Hashem concluded.
Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
“This person was one of us. He was raised and fed among us,” Hashem told MintPress. Hashem emphasized how ordinary al-Baghdadi was throughout his life with his family in Toubchi, a neighborhood in western Baghdad, and the fact that he used to lead prayers at the local mosque.
Iraqi security forces and civilians gather near a juvenile prison in the Toubchi district of western Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 following the explosion of a car bomb. The western Baghdad neighborhood is where the now infamous ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born and raised.
Hashem says al-Baghdadi is described by people who knew him in Baghdad as “calm” and as someone who wouldn’t attempt to draw attention to himself. Hashem was also told that al-Baghdadi is extremely intelligent. Indeed, he reportedly holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from a university in Baghdad. People also mentioned the militant leader’s prowess as an attacker on the soccer field, a quality that would later earn him the nickname “Maradona,” after the famous Argentinian World Cup champion, when he was held by the Americans in Camp Bucca, Iraq.
Contrary to many of the theories surrounding the head of one of the most terrifying terrorist groups to ever emerge, al-Baghdadi’s ascent to power was quite linear and lacking in CIA spies and Israeli intelligence officers, according to Hashem.
“People, especially in the Middle East, do not want to believe they have such people among them,” Hashem said. “They always want to blame it on the West or on Israel.”
He asserts that the facts do not support those claims, though.
Currently, the U.S. is being criticized for arming rebels that disbanded and joined extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria also known as the Nusra Front. U.S. allies, such as Turkey and the European Union, have been blamed in the past for their complicity in allowing ISIS to smuggle oil out of the country, which helped to fund their enterprises.
Resistance: The roots of al-Baghdadi’s radicalization
Detainees at a US military detention facility Camp Bucca, Iraq, Monday, March 16, 2009. More than 9,600 detainees who were captured as national security threats over the last four years are still being held there; at its peak, the prison located 340 miles southeast of Baghdad held 26,000 detainees, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who went on to become the leader with ISIS.
The major turning point in al-Baghdadi’s radicalization and his decision to join what was then known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) was the U.S. occupation of Iraq and his incarceration in 2004 at Camp Bucca, a detention center set up the U.S. military, Hashem told MintPress.
“He’s a normal person, at least he was,” Hashem said. “He was a young man who came from a village to study in Baghdad, but his life changed after the American occupation.”
The first way al-Baghdadi’s life changed was that he became a militant. The Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported that al-Baghdadi helped to found Jeish Ahl al-Sunnah al-Jamaah, a militant group, just before he was arrested by the Americans in February 2004.
According to Hashem, al-Baghdadi was radicalized inside Camp Bucca, where he was able to meet the big names inside al-Qaida and former Ba’ath party members — all of whom were fighting against the American occupation of the country. With all of these people in the same place, Hashem said, “You can just imagine the kind of plan that is going to come out of such a place!”
Radicalization as a result of being at the camp was not uncommon, he explained. “This was the situation, not only for al-Baghdadi but for several people that entered the jails as normal people, at least not al-Qaida… And then they went out of the jails as al-Qaida operatives.”
After becoming a member of al-Qaida and being released in December 2004, al-Baghdadi developed his al-Qaida career by using his prison contacts and climbing the ladder until he got to the top of the whole organization.
Mind of an extremist
Before being radicalized at Camp Bucca, al-Baghdadi was influenced by the teachings of Dr. Ismail al-Badri, who taught him about the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization created in 1928 and currently banned in many countries throughout the Middle East. However, according to Hashem, al-Baghdadi believed the Muslim Brotherhood was more theoretical in its approach to change and lacked the drive to truly go and do something.
Inside Camp Bucca, however, al-Baghdadi came into contact with people like Hajji Abu Bakr, a member of the Iraqi army prior to the U.S. invasion. He later became the leader of the ISIS military council and reportedly facilitated al-Baghdadi’s rise through the organization’s ranks.
After leaving the detention center, al-Baghdadi met Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of AQI, who was also influential in the formulation of his ideology. Muhajir was killed in Tikrit, Iraq, by the U.S. in 2010.
Paths toward peace
“There is a generation that is coming and that is being raised in this region that sees no future right now,” Hashem lamented to MintPress.
The main task of international players and regional powers shouldn’t be to create more war, he says, explaining, “The main task right now in this region should be trying to understand how to build a path towards peace.”
He concedes that everybody believes they are on the right path, but encourages the notion that there should be efforts toward bringing people who become radicalized back onto a more peaceful path. This includes finding a way for people to feel more “useful to this world,” he says.
“It’s not only by using weapons that things will change,” Hashem said. “We have to understand why these people are willing to kill themselves, why these people are blowing themselves up, and detonating themselves amongst other people. There are reasons for these things.”