Was Iraq’s Top Terrorist Radicalized at a US-Run Prison?

A former US military compound commander at Camp Bucca suspects ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s extremism was fostered (or bolstered) at the facility.

Dusan Vranic/AP

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In early July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the jihadist terror group now known as the Islamic State—formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISISpreached on high in Mosul and declared himself the “Caliph Ibrahim” of a new fundamentalist Sunni state stretching from western and northern Iraq to northern Syria. This announcement came after months of fighting over territory and skirmishes with Iraqi forces, as ISIS invaded and captured dozens of Iraqi cities including Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

In short order, Baghdadi has become Iraq’s most prominent extremist leader. But for much of his adult life, Baghdadi did not have a reputations as a fiery, jihadist trailblazer. According to the Telegraph, members of his local mosque in Tobchi (a neighborhood in Baghdad) who knew him from around 1989 until 2004 (when he was between the ages of 18 and 33) considered Baghdadi a quiet, studious fellow and a talented soccer player. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi was earning a degree in Islamic studies in Baghdad.

But within a couple years of the US invasion, Baghdadi was a prisoner in Camp Bucca, the US-run detainment facility in Umm Qasr, Iraq. And a US compound commander stationed at that prison—and other military officials—have in recent weeks wondered whether Baghdadi’s stint there radicalized him and put him on the path to taking over ISIS in 2010 and guiding the movement to its recent military victories.

The details of Baghdadi’s time in Camp Bucca are murky. Some media reports note that he was held as a “civilian internee” at the prison for 10 months in 2004. Others report that he was captured by US forces in 2005 and spent four years at Camp Bucca. The reason why he was apprehended is not publicly known; he could have been arrested on a specific charge or as part of a large sweep of insurgents or insurgent supporters. (A confidential Red Cross report leaked in May 2004 suggested than around 90 percent of detainees of Iraqi origin were arrested “by mistake.”) Army Colonel Kenneth King, the commanding US officer at Camp Bucca in 2009, recently told the Daily Beast that he distinctly remembered a man resembling Baghdadi: “He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.” King noted he was “not surprised” that such a radical figure emerged from the facility.

James Skylar Gerrond, a former US Air Force security forces officer and a compound commander at Camp Bucca in 2006 and 2007, says that he believes Baghdadi’s stay at the prison contributed to his radicalization—or at least bolstered his extremism. After Baghdadi proclaimed the Islamic State a new nation and himself its leader, Gerrond tweeted, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.” Gerrond is now a civilian working for the Department of Defense.

“Like many Iraq vets, I’ve been following the situation with ISIS for the last several weeks and trying to understand why things are falling apart so badly in the region,” Gerrond tells Mother Jones in an email. “When some of Baghdadi’s personal history started to come out, such as the fact that he was detained at Camp Bucca around the same time I was deployed there, I started to reflect on my deployment and what the conditions were at the facility during that time.”

Gerrond notes that US military officials in charge of the prison fretted that prisoners could be radicalized at the facility: “This was something that everyone in the chain of command [for Camp Bucca] (and other detention facilities) were always concerned with.” Maj. General Douglas Stone, the deputy commander for detainee operations in 2007, told Newsweek that year that potential radicalization was a “very real concern” at Camp Bucca.

According to Gerrond—and documents released by the US military back him up—the military officials running Camp Bucca took steps to prevent radicalization of inmates and violence at the camp. This included careful segregation and later, specific anti-extremist re-education programs. Prisoners were separated on the basis of ideology, among other factors, in order to prevent the commingling of extremists and moderates. The prisoners who were identified as the “most extreme,” including those who associated with radical factions, were isolated.

By quarantining extremists from younger or more moderate detainees, US military officials believed they could keep others from being converted, according to Gerrond. However, he says, it was incredibly difficult at Camp Bucca to regulate and monitor whether or not these efforts were successful. “In theory, this segregation should have kept those with the most heinous and violent ideologies separate from those detainees that were less motivated to commit violence,” says Gerrond. Yet efforts to curtail extremism fell short:

There was a huge amount of collective pressure exerted on detainees to become more radical in their beliefs. Obviously, this was supported by the fact that the detainees were being held against their will in a facility with minimal communication with their family and friends. This led to detainees turning to each other for support. If there were radical elements within this support network, there was always the potential that detainees would become more radical in their beliefs.

Gerrond notes the US military instituted several initiatives to counter the spread of extreme beliefs among the prisoners at Camp Bucca. Most preaching, he says, was conducted in public, where it could be monitored, and translators stood by to identify radical rhetoric. The facility also implemented an anti-extremist re-education program that offered various courses, including literacy classes and seminars on reading the Koran that were designed to counter interpretations of the holy book that justified violence. Most of these courses were voluntary and likely only reached a small percentage of detainees. The program, according to US military records, enlisted Islamic clerics, psychologists, and behavioral scientists to work with prisoners.

“I would be surprised if more than 5 to 10 percent of the detainee population participated,” says Gerrond. He recalls that the first graduation ceremony for this program was “somewhat surreal…with a round of sincere handshakes and congratulations between American guards and Iraqi detainees.” The program also attempted to increase family visitation privileges to provide psychological support to moderates and prevent radicalization. But the camp’s location in southeast Iraq, on the border of Kuwait, made it difficult for many families to visit, because of the distance and the danger in traveling.

Former inmates told Al Jazeera in 2009 that Camp Bucca, which closed in September of 2009 and transferred detainees to Iraqi custody, was an “Al Qaeda school,” where extremists gave chalkboard lessons on explosives and suicide bombing techniques to younger prisoners. One former prisoner, Adel Jasim Mohammed, told the Arab news service that one extremist “stayed for a week and recruited 25 of the 34 detainees” he was grouped with. Mohammed said that the US military officials did essentially nothing to stop radicals from indoctrinating other detainees, though US military officials denied to Al Jazeera that jihadists had radicalized moderate prisoners there.

The US military investigated the management of the camp and other detention facilities in 2004 and cited serious problems including “inexperienced guards, lapses in accountability, complacency, lack of leadership presence, and lack of clear and concise communication between the guards and the leadership.” But this inquiry did not examine whether conditions had fostered extremism.

As sectarian violence flares in Iraq, Gerrond thinks back to a “chilling conversation” he had with a “Shia Iraqi corrections officer” at Camp Bucca. He “stated to me (through a translator) that when the Americans departed Iraq, his only request was that we leave them enough ammunition so that they could kill all the [Sunni] detainees that were being held.”


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