Al Baghdadi, ISIS, Camp Bucca and the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq—Could we have Changed the Outcomes?

al baghdadi

In the summer of 2007 I was given the task of designing the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of a “deradicalization” program for the U.S. military that came to be known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program. This program was to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. And now I am learning, the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was apparently among those detainees held in Camp Bucca.

This July al Baghdadi declared himself the “Caliph Ibrahim” of a new fundamentalist Sunni state stretching from western and northern Iraq to northern Syria and his group has shown a ruthless bent for carrying out militant jihad.

But Baghdadi was not always an extremist killer. Before U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003 he was known as a quiet, studious young man who was earning his degree in Islamic studies.After the invasion however, he somehow ended up in Camp Bucca—either for actually being involved in the insurgency or in terrorist activities, or as a result of wide sweeps in which those who were around an IED explosion often ended up arrested and detained in a U.S. controlled prison.

It is unclear when Baghdadi radicalized, either before landing in Camp Bucca or inside of it. But it’s clear now that once inside Camp Bucca he hand picked top military men—former Baathists who were also detained there. This group of top Iraqi military leaders that al Baghdadi chose during his time in Camp Bucca, who now serve alongside him leading ISIS have provided invaluable military insight and training that al-Baghdadi and the former al Qaeda in Iraq lacked. They have augmented his group with traditional military skill combined now with terrorist techniques—making ISIS a formidable hybrid—of terrorists and an army. And it all happened underneath our noses—while we were trying to run a program to deradicalize these very individuals.

On my first visit in November 2006 to Camp Cropper outside of Baghdad to discuss with General Garner his wish to start a “deradicalization” program for the then fourteen thousand detainees he was shuffling between Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper—trying to prevent extremists from recruiting more—he and his staff admitted their frustration over being able to detect who were the true extremists, who was devoted to militant jihad and who had simply been caught up in sweeps and or were economically motivated for terrorist and insurgent activities and had no jihadi bent.

The estimates at that time were that only fifteen percent of the detainees were true extremists and adherents to the al Qaeda ideology. General Garner asked me, and my associates, to help design a program that might take the militant jihadists out of their extremist mentality. The need was urgent because the military leadership was well aware even then, that the true militant jihadists inside the prison were quickly radicalizing those they were exposed to and teaching them basic IED know how right inside the open air prisons. Baghdadi may have been among the students or one of the teachers at the time—now one knows for sure.

General Garner had a truly innovative spirit and was determined to create a program to address this problem however General Garner’s time was short so he passed the baton to Major General Douglas Stone who took up the task. I was later hired to help create this program under General Stone through a contractor who was tasked to carry out the program.

In beginning it, I was pleased to find that there were three al Qaeda operatives inside the prison who were all high level Salafi imams who had been working for the propaganda arm of al Zarkawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq but who had now turned against al-Qaeda and were eager to help fight it. These three—after being carefully vetted by both the CIA and the DIA—agreed to join our team and help reach the worst of the worst. They were released from Camp Cropper and free to return to their families, but instead they were so devoted to fighting al Qaeda in Iraq that they came back to Camp Bucca to work. Their job was to try to talk those who were ideologically committed out of believing that al Qaeda in Iraq had anything good to offer their country and that the militant jihad was justified by Islam.  They were totally disgusted by al Qaeda in Iraq and very enthusiastic about it.

My design was to pair these imams who had incredible street credibility and the Salafi mindset with talented and trained psychologists to also be able to find the hooks inside the person that the militant jihadi ideology had resonated to. We hoped to reach the most hardcore al Qaeda members by sitting with them consistently over weeks and days and addressing their Islamic beliefs as well as their psychological “hooks”. I knew that there had been Islamic Challenge programs before in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and one starting up in Scotland Yard, but this was to be the first “deradicalization” program to take a two pronged approach—pairing psychologists and imams together to try to bring those committed to the militant jihad and already far along the terrorist trajectory back down off of it and out of al Qaeda. We knew we wouldn’t turn them all but we were determined to try and turn some.

But as it turned out our program never got the chance to address the hardcore. Under General Stone’s leadership the military began doing quick releases of detainees putting them through a four-day program that basically checked a lot of boxes and only engaged them superficially, if at all. That may have been fine for the eighty-five percent who were not adhering to the militant jihadi ideology. The mass releases satisfied Sunni tribal demands at the same time that we were engaging in the Awakening and trying to stamp out al Qaeda in Iraq. The tribal leaders, on their side, were committed to making sure the released detainees who were not among the hardcore did not return to militant activities.

As I told General Stone about the program at the time—“it will only work if the politics of Iraq support it. A man who joined the militant jihad because you killed his sister may agree to give up engaging in violence, but if you kill his brother next, he’ll go right back to it.”

Unfortunately, as we have seen since exiting Iraq, the politics of Maliki’s ascendance and the Shia security forces bias in going after Sunnis—profiling and arresting them and even targeting top Sunni politicians—has recreated the original biases among the Sunni tribes that led them to harbor and support al Qaeda operatives during the U.S. coalition invasion. Now ISIS is simply al Qaeda in Iraq 2.0 with the Sunni population having recently the same motivations for tolerating and even encouraging them. No prison “deradicalization” program working in isolation was going to be able to address that.

Even so, as far as the hardcore went, it seems we dropped the ball. The prison staff apparently did not know for sure who they were and the U.S. military leadership’s sentiment was more inclined to keep them locked up—throwing away the key—than engage them. That unfortunately now seems shortsighted—given the keys were ultimately handed over to the Iraqis. Likewise many like al Baghdadi and his former Baathist military officers may have been radicalized versus deradicalized during the time we held them.

James Skylar Gerrond, a former US Air Force officer and a compound commander at Camp Bucca in 2006 and 2007 agrees, stating that he believes Baghdadi’s stay at the prison contributed to his radicalization—or at least bolstered his extremism. Gerrond tweeted this summer after al Baghdadi declared his caliphate, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”

Likewise when I interviewed former prisoners of Camp Bucca in Jordan in 2008, Sunni extremists there told me about their experiences of going through what became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program—a program I had designed but did not implement. They laughed and said it was not a real engagement and that in fact imams stood outside the fence of the prison in order to “check the boxes” and these imams read Islamic verses to them while the detainees spat and mocked them. This was not the engagement I had envisioned.

Now reading about the ascendance of ISIS, I find it incredibly frustrating that we had al Baghdadi and many of his group’s top military brass in our hands. They may have been radicalized right under our noses. Instead of carefully and meaningfully carrying out a program that could have possibly engaged them in what might have been a life changing exchange with highly credible sheiks and talented psychologists who could have made a difference in their thinking—as I had envisioned, we apparently did nothing.

Now we wait to see if al Baghdadi’s alleged words upon departing Camp Bucca, reported by the then camp commander Colonel Kenneth King—“I’ll see you guys in New York,”—will in fact come true.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in the Security Studies Program. She is author ofTalking to Terrorists and wrote about designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in her book. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Jordan, Iraq, and many countries in Europe.

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