I have written many times before on Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the Salafi, anti-Shi’a insurgent group in Iraq aspiring to overthrow the central government but also a noted rival of the Islamic State (IS), having issued a lengthy condemnation of IS in January 2014 (the mere preface of which I translated and analyzed) andclashed with IS for control of al-Karma in August culminating in Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s withdrawal from the town. One of the focuses of Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s criticisms of IS is that IS’ leaders arose from the U.S.-run prison of Camp Bucca during the days of the Iraq War. Among those leaders is none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current proclaimed caliph of IS.
The life of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is naturally attracting a good deal of media attention. Suffice to say that amid the rising media interest there is a good deal of nonsense. For example, there is considerable controversy as to when Baghdadi was released from U.S. custody: some sources have put it as late as 2009, others in the height of the Iraq War (2006-7). I can confirm via my own access to documentation (which I cannot disclose here) that all such claims are false. He was released in December 2004, and in this regard, Martin Chulov’s recent report in The Guardian deserves credit for being one of the few to get this right.
The testimony below– taken from the lengthier work of Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s condemnation of IS- is of interest in coming from a Shari’a official and amir of Jaysh al-Mujahideen who claims that Baghdadi was his one-time pupil: not during Baghdadi’s time in Bucca, but in the year 2005. This period of study is said to have taken place before the arrest of the Jaysh al-Mujahideen figure. The account here thus corroborates the assessment of Baghdadi as having been released before 2005. Moreover, it is claimed that Baghdadi was in the ranks of Jaysh al-Mujahideen.
How reliable could this testimony be, dedicated as it is to discrediting IS? Interesting as Chulov’s report is, it is really the story of his IS source Abu Ahmed and not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There is little doubt at least that by the time of the incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the subsequent years (ISI: autumn 2006 onwards), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was within the ranks of ISI, and clearly a rising figure. With Baghdadi released in December 2004, we are facing a gap in the current reports as to what he was doing in 2005. I submit that it is plausible that Baghdadi might have first tried out Jaysh al-Mujahideen as a rather hardline Salafi, anti-Shi’a faction, but found it too ‘moderate’ and/or ineffectual, and thus by the end of 2005 had left Jaysh al-Mujahideen and then joined the al-Qa’ida circles that would become ISI.
“Testimony/Witness of Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Mansour, the Shari’a official and amir in Jaysh al-Mujahideen in Iraq on his pupil Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader of the Dawla organization.
As for myself, I bear witness by God- and there is no other deity except Him- to what I know from familiarity with this imposter who has called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as he had studied under me with a group of the erudite ones…in the year 2005, then the study was cut off because of my arrest, and I had got to know him very well. He was of limited intelligence, slow to understand, pale in intuitive grasp. For he is not from among the average students of ‘ilm [Islamic knowledge, ‘knowledge’ from here on], and his studies background are academic studies in the government universities whose standard is emaciated and which have no relation with forming a student of knowledge let alone a knowledgeable person [referring to Baghdadi’s time at the Islamic University of Baghdad].
Then indeed he was with us till the end of 2005 among the soldiers of our army. He was not among those outstanding in the field, nor was he of the people of assault and patrol, nor was he of special missions, nor do we recall for him an attested incident in reinforcements or confrontation until I was arrested, at which point the man turned on the brothers, became angry, and began stirring up problems in the group…I entreat God that I do not say this for the inclination in my soul, but I would not be recording it were it not for the fact they have written down their testimony/witness in a book and wanted what they wanted from this book…Thus I confirm…that not only is this Abu Bakr not steeped in knowledge or a capable student of knowledge, but also he is not the master of a single accredited book in aqeeda [creed] or fiqh [jurisprudence], and our brothers from the Iraqi students of knowledge from all the groups and approaches know this very well, and know that there is no link between him and knowledge, and are aware of the very emaciated level of Shari’a knowledge that the government universities offer.”
Update: Cole Bunzel draws to my attention that Binali- the Bahraini IS figure and a biographer of Baghdadi- affirms Baghdadi was with at least one other jihadi group before joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s front group Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen set up in January 2006. This lends credence to the account above.