Unholy Alliances: Radicalisation in US Detention Facilities

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

By Kari van der Ploeg -

The Islamic State (IS) is known for its religious fundamentalism. Remarkably, its leadership consists of many men with moderate religious backgrounds. Several of its highest deputies served as officials for Saddam Hussein’s army. As Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was secular by background, this raises questions on how these men evolved from moderate military leaders to religious fundamentalists. It is said that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met most of his deputies during his imprisonment at Camp Bucca. Camp Bucca was a detention facility maintained by the United States military since April 2003. In total, 80.000 detainees passed through these centres. Backgrounds included both Sunni and Shia extremists, as well as ordinary criminals. Al-Baghdadi was held in this US maintained detention facility in Southern Iraq since 2004. Testimonies claim that both al-Baghdadi as well as his deputies were known as moderate Muslims before their detention, but radicalised during their time in prison.

Al-Baghdadi used to be known as a modest and withdrawn man that did not hold any radical views on the Islamic faith before he was detained. Members of his local mosque in Tobchi, Baghdad, remember him as a quiet and polite student that was good at soccer rather than being an extremist jihadi. During his time at Camp Bucca, he was not remembered as one of the radical detainees either. Army Colonel Kenneth King, former commanding officer at Camp Bucca, stated in an interview with the Daily Beast: “I’m not surprised it was someone who spent time at Camp Bucca, but I’m a little surprised it was him. He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.” Al-Baghdadi remained on the background until Al-Qaida’s shura council, a religious consultative assembly, elected him as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010.

The Islamic State of Iraq was a caliphate (a political order in which everyone lives under religious, political and military Muslim rule), proclaimed by Al-Qaida around 2006. Under the leadership of Al-Baghdadi the group grew significantly. The group pursued a borderless worldwide caliphate. So when the conflict in Syria started, Al-Baghdadi moved his group to the border with Syria. Syria’s branch of Al-Qaida, ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’, pleaded the ISI to stay out of the conflict and leave it to them, which placed the two groups against each other. After its infiltration of Syria, ISI became known as ISIL or ISIS. On 24 June 2014 it took its current name: ‘Islamic State’ (IS).

When Al-Baghdadi became head of ISI he immediately eliminated all disloyal leaders, surrounding himself with men he most knew and trusted. The most notorious of these men are Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hayali, IS deputy to Iraq, and Abu Ali al-Anbari, IS deputy to Syria. Both were high officials in Hussein’s army and used to practice moderate forms of Islam. Both of them, he met at Camp Bucca.

Details about al-Baghdadi’s stay at Camp Bucca remain vague. Sources give contradictory periods of his imprisonment. It is established that his detention started in 2004, but it is not certain when he was released. The US Defense Department claims he was released after ten months, whereas other sources claim he was detained until 2006. It is however confirmed by several sources that his deputies al-Anbari and al-Hayali were in Camp Bucca at the same time, as well as men that now possess high positions within the IS.

According to previously mentioned Col. Kenneth King, the environment among detainees at Camp Bucca was very hostile. Its population was a mixture between Sunni and Shia militants who had to be kept separated at all times. Prisoners were constantly looking for opportunities to start fighting. They looked for routines, patterns and opportunities while fashioning homemade weapons from junk they found on the ground.  The problem of overcrowding fueled the hostile atmosphere as it enhanced the scarcity of recourses, especially after a great number of transfers from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca took place. Another factor that contributed to this atmosphere was a sense of uncertainty among prisoners about their status. Prisoners did not have information whether there was a process in place to review their cases. These insecurities gave rise to a sense of unease and a susceptibility to extreme ideals.

Jihadi inmates, who were part of al-Qaida, played into these sentiments by indoctrinating, threatening and intimidating their fellow detainees. Adel Jasim Mohammed, a former inmate, stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera that they gave classes on chalkboard on how to build and use explosives and how to become suicide bombers. Chaos and vulnerability provided extremists with the opportunity to instill their ideologies upon others.

Other reasons for members of the Sunni oriented Ba’ath party to join the IS was their frustration with local politics towards Iraq’s Shia population. Sunni members were angry about loss of land to Shia Iraqi’s. There also was a lot of discontent among Sunni’s about Iraq’s policy in favoring Shia Muslims. After the US invasion in 2003 Sunnis were barred from government positions and Shias were gaining a lot of political dominance. Again, these sentiments of insecurity and vulnerability were used by jihadists to spark ideological motivations among their recruits. The IS for instance propagates their quest for territory as an existential fight for Sunni-Muslims worldwide. They purposely operate close to Shia divisions to maintain the ideological framework of their fighters.

We see that extremist groups were well aware of the insecurities that occupied their recruits. They efficiently played into these sentiments by indoctrinating them with their ideals, providing them with a reason to fight.

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Kari van der Ploeg

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