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We just missed the Isis leader. Next time we’ll get him

An Iraqi squad had Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in its sights but was foiled by red tape. Ali Hashem reveals how the world’s most wanted man cheated death

Abubakr_baghdadiBy Ali Hashem  for THE SUNDAY TIMES – –

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once lived in BaghdadAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi once lived in Baghdad
EARLY on a balmy morning in mid-November, members of the “Falcons cell”, an elite Iraqi intelligence squad, gathered in nervous anticipation in the bunker of their secret headquarters in the capital, Baghdad.

They knew that their mission, should it succeed, could change the direction of the bloody war against Isis, also known as Islamic State, the terrorist organisation that for months had inflicted havoc, destruction and death across swathes of Iraq and Syria.

About 250 miles away in the small border town of al-Qa’im, on the banks of the Euphrates, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man, entered a nursery school at 9.45am with his most senior aides and dozens of men ready to pledge allegiance to him as their new leader.

The Falcons were poised to strike. “We gathered information from our sources and knew he was going to be there,” said one of the cell’s leaders, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym of Major Bakr.

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 then precious time had been lost and Baghdadi was now on the move. Instead of an easy strike on a single gathering of Isis’s top men, Iraqi fighter jets were forced to aim at a moving convoy of vehicles without knowing which one contained Baghdadi.

“The strike should have killed Baghdadi if it had happened on time, but we weren’t able to reveal the target and the fighter jets moved late,” Bakr said.

As the missiles blasted into the convoy, destroying at least 10 vehicles, Baghdadi’s personal bodyguard and Abu Mohannad, a senior aide, were killed.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once lived in BaghdadAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi once lived in Baghdad

However, the Falcons’ prize catch eluded their grasp. Baghdadi, injured in the head and stomach, was whisked back across the border to safety 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.

I came across the story of the botched airstrike while I was researching a documentary on the life of Baghdadi that will be shown on the pan-Arab al-Mayadeen news channel in Lebanontomorrow.

My quest to understand the man who has emerged as such a huge threat to global peace led me into a series of exclusive interviews with his friends and acquaintances: each revealed their surprise at the transformation of a bookish, uncharismatic scholar into a feared terrorist mastermind.

Baghdadi was born Ibrahim bin Awad al-Badri in 1971 in Samarra, central Iraq. He adopted his nom de guerre, which appeared to reflect his grand ambitions, when he became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010.

He has three brothers, one of whom, Jomaa,acts as his bodyguard and confidant. A second brother Shamsi,from whom he is estranged, is being held at an Iraqi intelligence detention centre north of Baghdad. The third brother, Ahmad, is said to have caused problems for Baghdadi with his financial difficulties.

Little else is known about his childhood, but as a young man and a devout Muslim he seemed destined for academia.

My investigation first took me to Baghdad’s Haji Zeidan mosque in the mixed Shi’ite and Sunni neighbourhood of Tobji, a suburb of the city long plagued by sectarian strife.

It was here that Baghdadi lived about 15 years ago when he was in his twenties and studying at the Islamic University while reportedly working as a tailor.

People at the mosque were afraid to talk. The current imam’s son said his father had been arrested by Iraqi intelligence several times and questioned about Baghdadi, once being detained for two months.

One former acquaintance, Amjad, who claimed he knew Baghdadi well, described how he played football on nearby waste ground. “He was obsessed with scoring goals, he would turn nervous if he didn’t,” he said.

Exclusive pictures obtained for the documentary reveal the faces of Asmaa al- Kobeisi, his first wife and cousin, and three of his six children: his sons Huzeifa al-Badri and Hassan al-Badri and his daughter Omayma. His second wife, Israa Rajab al-Kaisi, is the mother of his youngest son, Ali. It is not known whether they live with him.

Abu Ahmad, who claims to have studied at university with Baghdadi, said the seeds of his early radicalisation were sown by Dr Ismail al-Badri, who encouraged him towards the teachings of the then banned Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation founded in Egypt in 1928.

Baghdadi left the movement in 2000, soon falling under the influence of Abu Mohammed al-Mufti al-Aali, one of the main jihadist ideologues in Iraq at the time.

He branched out on his own to help found a small militant group in 2003, Jaish Ahl al-Sunnah Wal Jamaah, which quickly took root in the restive Sunni communities and fought against US forces in Iraq.

The group was one of many that were formed within a broad Sunni revolt against the American occupation of Iraq and which later came together under the flag of al-Qaeda and, more recently, Isis.

Isis has now overrun much of the west and centre of the country, as well as eastern Syria.

Asmaa al-Kobeisi is his first wifeAsmaa al-Kobeisi is his first wife THE Americans once had Baghdadi within their grasp. In February 2004 they tracked him down to a friend’s house in Falluja, west of Baghdad, and arrested him. He was transferred to Camp Bucca, a detention centre named after Ronald Bucca, a New York firefighter who had died in the attacks on September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington.

In Bucca, Baghdadi’s footballing prowess once again earned him admiration. “I saw him playing football with other prisoners. I was amazed by his capabilities. I understood later that he was given the name Maradona,” said Abu Omar, a former Isis member who served three years at the camp.

Far from Bucca ending the threat that Baghdadi posed, the incarceration became a defining moment in establishing his credentials as a jihadist leader destined for the top. He began to draw attention by giving Friday sermons, although he was not one of the most important inmates. Abu Omar said his speeches were “nothing to compare with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a US airstrike in 2006.

Crucially, the camp, which had 24,000 prisoners, many of them accused of joining the Sunni-led anti-US insurgency, provided a safe environment for militant leaders to forge alliances with each other.

Baghdadi built a formidable database of future jihadist contacts, including Abu Muhammad al-Adnani,the current Isis spokesman. He was also noticed by some of the most powerful figures in al-Qaeda, impressing them with his expertise in Koranic studies.

After his release in December 2004 he joined al-Qaeda, changing his name to Abu Duaa and coming under the tutelage of Sheikh Fawzi al-Jobouri,one of the group’s most influential intellectuals. In June 2006, the same monthwhen Zarqawi was killed, Baghdadi graduated from the Islamic University of Baghdad with a PhD in the “phonetics of the Koran”, a qualification he would use to legitimise his anointing as “caliph” of the Islamic world last July.

Zarqawi was succeeded by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a former police officer, who became leader of al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq.

Brother Shamsi is no longer in contact with him Brother Shamsi is no longer in contact with him Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi went to Syria, returning to Iraq in 2013. On his return his Bucca contacts began to bear fruit. Haji Bakr, a former inmate, introduced him to al-Qaeda’s top leadership, who were so impressed that he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming one of Abu Omar’s most trusted confidants.

When Abu Omar was killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became a frontrunner to replace him.

The fact that he was from the Quraysh, the tribe of the prophet Muhammad, boosted his credentials as the best leader to usher in the Islamic caliphate. He was appointed the new emir.

As the death of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout shook al-Qaeda and the “Arab Spring” swept across the Middle East, starting a revolution in neighbouring Syria, Baghdadi decided it was time to widen his group’s reach.

He sent two of his chief aides, Abu Mohammad al-Golani and Mullah Fawzi al-Duleimi, to Syria to expand his state, declaring it to be Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now known as Isis.

Golani opposed this decision, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the newly appointed global leader of al-Qaeda. A serious rift broke out within al-Qaeda in Syria, but it was a power struggle that Baghdadi ultimately won. As he took the world by surprise by invading Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June last year, an Islamic caliphate with Baghdadi at the helm had been born — the repercussions of which the world has been dealing with since.

Although bitter at the failure of last November’s strike on Baghdadi, Major Bakr of the Falcons is confident that they will eventually get their man. “Al-Baghdadi knows we are very close,” he said.

“He’s not able to move like before and this is one of our achievements. He’s always careful not to be killed by us and as we did before with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi we’ll do with his successor. Sooner or later he’ll die.”

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