WASHINGTON — When the U.S. military detained Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Iraq in 2004, it was too inexperienced at dealing with suspected terrorists to know what kind of threat he potentially posed when it released him 10 months later, those who worked in the military detention system at that time now concede.
Baghdadi had been arrested in February 2004 along with several others in the western Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah and was held at the military’s Camp Bucca in southern Iraq until he was released in December of that year, the Pentagon said.
But Pentagon officials said they don’t have detailed enough records to explain which unit arrested him, the reason for his arrest or, most importantly, why he was released.
That so few details are available on a detainee whose Islamic State terrorist organization now threatens the very existence of a country where almost 4,500 Americans lost their lives is a reminder of how unprepared the United States was when it invaded Iraq in March 2003.
By the time the U.S. military found itself setting up four detention centers in Iraq, the war had gone on far longer than expected, and the United States was reacting in an ad hoc way to developments that the administration of President George W. Bush hadn’t anticipated.
Resources as basic as translators and interpreters were often in short supply, both for troops making arrests and for those assigned to guarding and questioning the detainees. There was no clear standard for troops about what was acceptable evidence, and review boards considering who to release at times had only handwritten notes to consider in making their decision. Many of those tasked with running the detention centers had, at best, minimal experience.
In Iraq for less than a year when Baghdadi was arrested, the U.S. military did not appreciate important clues in Baghdadi’s past that portended his ties to al-Qaida, experts said.
“The biggest challenge then was figuring out who to keep and who to release,” said one Army commander who served in Iraq around that period and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “We didn’t know how much and what kind of evidence we needed to hold someone, so many times, we would have to release them.”
In the past weeks, as Baghdadi’s prominent role in Iraq emerged, many media organizations, including McClatchy, incorrectly reported that he had been held at Camp Bucca for years and released during the Obama administration. But the Pentagon said its records show that was not true and that he was held for a relatively short time when the U.S. presence in Iraq was still young.
Ahmed Ali, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said it was “very likely” Baghdadi was a member of al-Qaida at the time of his 2004 arrest. Born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971, Baghdadi was a mullah and longtime follower of the conservative Salafi strain of Sunni Islam when U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003. He reportedly ran several smaller militant groups in Fallujah.
Certainly his ascent to head of the Islamic State of Iraq, as the Qaida organization in Iraq was then called, in May 2010 suggests he had been a member for years, Ali said, noting that it takes years for members to earn the trust to become a leader.
“It is clear to me he got involved in 2003. That is when recruitment of Iraqis started by AQI,” Ali said, referring to the Islamic State’s first incarnation, al-Qaida in Iraq. “It would not have been difficult for him to join AQI. The Salafists under Saddam were trying to form a base. Because he was a part of that trend, it is not surprising he would join AQI. The ideology between the two is similar.”
U.S. officials, however, were likely unaware of any of those details when they entered Baghdadi on the rolls of Camp Bucca as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badry. At the time, two military police who worked at the facility told McClatchy, the U.S. military was still fine-tuning procedures at Camp Bucca, even as scores of detainees were arriving. The MPs spoke to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about their work at the detention center.
The U.S. military hadn’t maintained detention centers for wartime prisoners since the Korean War and “reinvented the wheel,” in the words of one.
It wasn’t until 2006, long after Baghdadi had been released, that the U.S. began keeping detailed records on it detainees, including collecting biometrics to help in identifying individuals who, like Baghdadi, might be using a number of aliases.
A review of documents made public by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks makes clear that commanders were crafting standard operating procedures even as they took in ever more detainees, tackling questions as basic as how often to conduct head counts. According to Wikileaks, the military produced 40 documents in 2004 reviewing procedures at Camp Bucca, indicating the camp was a work in progress.
One, for example, dated March 2004, one month into Baghdadi’s detention, runs 35 pages and stresses repeatedly how to count the detainees. But it wasn’t until September of that year that the military came up with a procedure for what to do if someone turns up missing during a count.
In 2004, there were between 4,881 and 7,500 detainees held at the four U.S. military detention centers in Iraq. The U.S. held the most number of detainees in 2007, at the height of the U.S. surge, when there were 25,223 detainees, according to Pentagon officials.
At the time of Baghdadi’s arrest, Camp Bucca held 800 detainees in one section of the compound. Prisoners were not segregated from one another at the time, the military police said, unless they misbehaved, raising questions about whether Baghdadi was radicalized — or radicalized others — at the U.S.-run facility.
Often, detainees would show up in groups, having been rounded up by U.S. military personnel. The decision to release them was made by a review board that consulted evidentiary documents and lawyers to assess whether a particular detainee still posed a risk. Often, the case against detainees was based on tenuous charges, leading to their release, said one of the military police.
A Combined Review and Release Board recommended Baghdadi’s “unconditional release,” Pentagon records show, but there is no associated file to show what evidence was considered in reaching that decision.
U.S. officials now believed that two years after his release, Baghdadi was actively working with al-Qaida in the very city where he was arrested, a U.S. counterterrorism official said. The official cannot be identified under the conditions with which he discussed Baghdadi.
The United States kept investing in improving the procedures and facilities at Camp Bucca, building individual cells and housing for the guards, soldiers, police officers and support staff. Shortly after the United States left Iraq in 2011, an investment company bought it and converted the facilities left behind into a hotel.