MESOP Exclusive : Rudaw Interview with former friend of Baghdadi

By Omar Ali – 4 May 2015 – There has been little known about Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the mysterious and reclusive leader of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.  But Rudaw has obtained exclusive access to a former friend of Baghdadi.  For the first time, a biography of Baghdad emerges through questions answered by the former friend, who spoke to Rudaw on condition of anonymity. Identifying himself as Abu Muhammad, the 40-year-old revealed that he had been living with Baghdadi for some time, and was surprised that his former housemate has emerged as the world’s most dangerous person. Abu Muhammad, who is a civil servant in Baghdad, remembers Baghdadi as a modest and inconspicuous person. According to him, Baghdadi had lived in an urban neighborhood in Baghdad in the 1990s, studying Islamic Sharia before becoming the leader of the world’s most dangerous group.

According to residents, Baghdadi would preach every Friday in the capital’s Topchi neighborhood. He studied at the Haji Zedan Mosque religious school. Many students coming from Mosul and Tikrit stayed at the mosque while studying. This was coordinated by the head of the mosque. Those who liked Islamic Sharia turned to the mosque.

Reports from various sources have suggested that Baghdadi has been detached from leading ISIS, possibly because of injuries to his spine from coalition air strikes. But Abu Asaad Ansari, an ISIS preacher in Mosul who preaches about ISIS affairs every week, says that Baghdadi is safe leading the ISIS frontlines in Iraq’s Anbar province.

  I never expected that someday a person as calm as he would become one of the world’s most dangerous killers

Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Badri in 1971 in Samara, Salahaddin province, and only later took the name by which the world knows him. He became emir of the Islamic State in 2010 in Iraq, declaring the Islamic caliphate on July 5, 2014 in the Great Light Mosque after leading Friday prayers. He obtained his PhD from the Islamic University in Baghdad.

Baghdadi reportedly has at least two wives. He was detained in late 2004 by US forces troops in Iraq and spent two years at the Boka military prison in Basra. He has established a number of small organizations.  When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq by US troops in 2006, Baghdadi became a leading figure within al-Qaeda in Iraq. After Abu Hamza Muhajir was killed, he became the leading individual within the extremist group. Baghdadi has appeared on video only once and released four voice messages.  In the past, he customarily held a low profile, even covering his face with a mask when speaking to his followers, earning him the moniker of “the masked sheikh.”  All those who knew him in the past, before he turned radical, remember him as eloquent, calm and contained.

For the first time, a former friend of Baghdadi spoke to Rudaw about this secretive and complex person. 

Rudaw: What did you think when you heard that Abu Bakr Baghdadi has established the Islamic Caliphate and declared himself a Caliph?

Abu Muhammad: I never expected that someday a person as calm as he would become one of the world’s most dangerous killers and would take over a giant province like Nineveh and set up his state there.

Rudaw: How did you call him in the past?

Abu Muhammad: We called him Mulla and Sheikh Ibrahim when he lived in Topchi neighborhood. He rented a home just across the mosque which had two rooms.

Rudaw: How would you describe his personality?

Abu Muhammad: He was an ordinary person, not very religious at all, really. Once I took my youngest son to his home because many of the neighborhood children used to go there to listen to him cite the Quran. He told me once: “If this (the Quran) could help, I would treat my own son with its help.” His son was called Huzaifa and he was very energetic. His father could not control him.

  Once I took my youngest son to his home because many of the neighborhood children used to go there to listen to him cite the Quran.

Rudaw: Did Baghdad have any special gifts?

Abu Muhammad: He did not have any special talents to lead a group, nor was his appearance striking at all. He wore a simple shirt and trousers, sometimes even a T-shirt when he went to government offices for his own errands. But he wore the Arab jubbah when preaching. Even in the mosque, he wore Arab outfit, the dishdasha.

Rudaw: How did he spend his days?

Abu Muhammad: Sheikh Ibrahim did not wish to live alone. This is why his friends were around him all the time. He lived like this in and outside the mosque. But he spent most of his time in the mosque. He was busy instructing Sharia students and teaching Quran to children. Sheikh Ibrahim was not a mosque preacher. He had done that only twice, as far as I know in 1995, when he preached back then. He was just a liturgist in the mosque. The mosque in Topchi included a religious school with students from many provinces, as far as Anbar, Mosul, Dohuk, and Salahaddin, who stayed at the mosque over the night. Most of those who were with Sheikh Ibrahim were killed in the fights against the Americans after 2003. Sheikh Ibrahim disappeared from the Topchi neighborhood after 2004 and was never seen there again.

Rudaw: As you were close to him, did you expect him to become the leader of the most dangerous militant group in the world?

Abu Muhammad: What’s interesting is that Sheikh Ibrahim was completely different before establishing ISIS. Even when he was a liturgist, no one could tell that he could become a jihadi. But things changed radically. After the Iraq invasion and the rise of jihadism, I saw him once by accident in Fallujah. I was there to visit a relative. I spoke to him and asked what he was doing there, as I knew his relatives were in Samara. He told me: ‘I fight against the Americans now.’ Later, he was captured by the Americans and imprisoned. And then we saw him on TV last summer, as he was preaching at a mosque in Mosul. We thought then that he had gone insane.

Rudaw: So you found it strange that he appeared like that?

Abu Muhammad: In the beginning the media were showing a picture of Sheikh Ibrahim which resembled the person who once lived among us and taught Quran and religious lessons to our children. It was strange the first time we saw him on TV in the speech he made in Mosul. It was like a shock to me. The news about Sheikh Ibrahim being Abu Bakr Baghdadi spread very quickly in Topchi neighborhood. Everyone asked if that was the same modest person of the past.

Rudaw: Had you ever had any disputes with Baghdadi?

  What’s interesting is that Sheikh Ibrahim was completely different before establishing ISIS.

Abu Muhammad: We were playing football once in our neighborhood. The playground was close to the mosque. Sheikh Ibrahim was badly hurt in the leg. Since I was familiar with basic medical aid, I helped him with the injury. But then, when I saw him in his new face, I regretted very much what I had done from him. I always tell my family that, if I knew that he would become the most feared criminal in the world, I would never have approached him and would break his leg instead of fixing it. But he was a good football player. It was hard to stop him.

Rudaw: how do you interpret the fact that this modest Sheikh Ibrahim is now the leader of the most dangerous group in the world?

Abu Muhammmad: Sheikh Ibrahim had a wide network of ties to religious leaders, because different people from different provinces came and stayed with him at the mosque. Haji Zedan Mosque was like a quest house for the students of Sharia studies. They visited him regularly. But Sheikh Ibrahim’s closest friend, who visited him far too often and knew him back in the 1990s, was Abu Zahra. He was a student at the Sharia College. He was from Mosul. He was the preacher and liturgist of a mosque in Mosul. He was very moderate and down to earth. When ISIS took over Mosul, Abu Zahra left his position as a preacher and liturgist and just prayed as an ordinary person in the mosque. Someone told on Abu Zahra, so ISIS came and captured him and tortured him and humiliated him. They asked him why he resigned after ISIS came to Mosul. He replied that he did not believe in the “takfiri” thought of ISIS. This was enough to sentence him to one year’s house arrest.