Friday, June 13, 2014

Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdi and his possible Môsul past

With the massive gains that the Islamic State in 'Irâq and the Levant (widely known as ISIS and before that as Islamic State of 'Irâq or ISI) has made within the last days in 'Irâq - especially the major city of Môsul - Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdi the ISIS Amîr al-Mu`minîn (Commander of the Faithful) has become one of the most powerful jihadists ever.

Intriguingly, his real identity is still not clear without a doubt - Abû Bakr al-Badghdâdî being a nom de guerre. The US has identified him as Dr. Ibrâhîm 'Awâd Ibrâhîm al-Badrî. There is a jihadist biography that seems to confirm that claim. Pieter van Ostaeyen has covered it in detail. According to the biography Abû Bakr studied at the Islamic University in Baghdâd and holds a PhD in Islâm. He is alleged to have been a founder of the small Sunni insurgent group Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama'a that joined the Mujâhidîn Shûrâ Council - the predecessor to the Islamic State - in 2006.


Unverified identity

But can we take this information at face value? I think not. The US has a mixed record of identifying their opponents in 'Irâq. While announcing that Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir was in fact Abû Ayyûb al-Masrî immediately after he became Amîr of Qâ'idat al-Jihâd fî Bilâd al-Râfidayn (AQI) the US for some time spread the theory that the first Amîr of the Islamic State of 'Irâq Abû 'Umar al-Baghdâdî did not exist and the voice messages in his name were read out by an actor.

The 'Irâqî government was even worse in this regard and killed Abû 'Umar at least twice before arresting this poor fellow who also did not turn out to be the right one (by the way does anyone know what happened to him?). Finally, an 'Irâqî unhappy with Abû 'Umar posted his real name - Khâlid al-Zâwî - to a forum, the information turning out to be true when Abû Hamza and Abû 'Umar were killed in 2010.

But what about the biography posted by jihadists? Well, there is a certain reflex to quote something as confirmed jihadist content because of it being posted on a jihadist forums. I for one have no idea where this biography was posted. An official ISIS outlet? Someone on Twitter or in the forums who is known to have inside information on ISIS? Or just some dude with a black flag avatar without any known connections to ISIS? I believe it's the latter because that is what the majority of the people in the forums are (directly followed by law enforcement and journalists).

The person posting the biography may in fact believe that al-Badrî is Abû Bakr - because he heard so on the news. Add an uncle who knew someone who once studied in Baghdâd and knows someone from university who says that old Ibrâhîm was his fellow and... you get where I am going. 


The prison claim and the video

Within the last weeks I noticed that a new line of information is frequently quoted by experts and media alike, namely that Abû Bakr had been imprisoned by the Americans from 2005-2009. While many of the Islamic State's leadership served time in prison - among them the first Amîr Abû 'Umar and the current spokesman Abû Muhammad al-'Adnânî - I have an objection to the mentioned time frame for Abû Bakr's stay in prison. 

The objection is that I believe that he appeared on video in that time. On April 3rd 2008 the Islamic State's al-Furqân media published the video Usûd al-Sharâ 1. The nearly half-hour-long video shows ISI fighters preparing for a raid, the actual attack on 'Irâqî barracks and the aftermath. The video opens up with the firing up speech of the responsible field commander whom I believe to be Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî. The video must have been filmed between late 2006 when the Islamic State was announced and early 2008 - I suppose it is 2007.


Comparing the voice pattern, intonation and style from the above video clip to any of the available audio speeches released by al-Furqân convinced me that this is in fact him. But on top of the voice al-Furqân did us the favour to identify the speaker in a video caption: Commander of the raid: Abû Bakr al-Ansârî. Ansârî (supporter) in ISIS language means a local - in this case an 'Irâqî - while Muhâjir (emigrant) is used to identify foreign fighters. The information value of the caption therefore is Abû Bakr from 'Irâq.

The Islamic State's use of al-Baghdâdî (the one from Baghdâd) for their first Amîr Abû 'Umar who had nothing to do with Baghdâd shows that Baghdâdî is used as a synecdoche for 'Irâqî by replacing the country with its capital. The information value of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî is therefore also Abû Bakr from 'Irâq.

There is precedent for ISIS respectively its predecessors to have a mid-level commander in a speaking role in video releases who then turns out to be the new big-shot, namely Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir. He appeared at the end of the 2005 video release Usûd al-Tawhîd. A year later he would become AQI's Amîr.

"One of the military commanders of al-Qâ'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers" - Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir in a 2005 video release


The Môsul connection

When the recent ISIS offensive took Môsul one of its aims was to open the famous Bâdûsh prison. The Italian journalist Daniele Raineri came across an interesting rumour:

While I do not necessarily believe that Abû Bakr was physically involved in the latest raids he has a connection to Bâdûsh - the video Usûd al-Sharâ 1 shows an attack in the Bâdûsh area. 

"Storming the barracks of the Heathen Guard (a ploy on words: watanî = national/ wathanî = heathen) in Qât'i al-Jazîra - Bâdûsh" 

If my assumption is correct and Abû Bakr has indeed experience as field commander in Môsul it seems likely that he was involved in the planing of the takeover and choosing Môsul as primary target may also appear as influenced by the personal knowledge of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî. Intimately knowing the terrain may have been a major advantage to ISIS.



While I am skeptical of taking reports that have not been proven as of now for the final truth I do not categorically deny that Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî is in fact Ibrâhîm al-Badrî. I do not know enough about 'Irâq and AQI to do so and I do not have access to classified documents which are the base for that claim. 

I dispute the 2005-2009 prison episode that has been mentioned lately as I do not think that Abû Bakr got vacation days from jail. If Ibrâhîm al-Badrî was in fact imprisoned at that time I'd be fairly convinced that al-Badrî is not Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî based on the video above.

In the end this discussion boils down to the verifiability of sources and the astonishing fact that we are not sure of Name, DoB and PoB of one of the most influential players in the Middle East. I leave you with a screenshot of the man I believe to be the mysterious Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî.

"Rousing speech by the commander of the raid Abû Bakr al-Ansarî" or should I say al-Baghdâdî?