Anthony Loyd, courtesy of The Times and The Australian, 16 June where the title reads “Syrian gravesite marks ISIS beginnings”
AN anonymous grave in a rural cemetery in northern Syria marks the final resting place of the mysterious terrorist mastermind whose legacy is tearing Iraq apart.Under the sun-bleached soil outside Tal Rifat, marked only by a pair of besser bricks and a wild poppy, lies the right-hand man and military mentor of ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Codenamed Haji Bakr, an Iraqi, the dead man defied every cliche written about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — in his life and the manner of death. Killed early in January with a machine gun in his hands, he died in a shoot-out alongside his gun-toting Iraqi wife after their house was surrounded by local Syrian rebels as fighting between ISIS and its erstwhile allies raged.
“We didn’t know who we had killed at first,’’ said a Syrian commander with the rebel group that shot Haji Bakr. As well as the documents in his house, they found disguises, passports, coloured contact lenses and wads of dollars.
It was the start of an evidence trail that was to reveal how Saddam Hussein’s former henchmen had re-emerged to fight alongside the jihadists who invaded much of northern Iraq last week. “Other ISIS fighters we had captured told us, ‘You have killed Haji Bakr’,’’ the commander said.
Rebels said as well as capturing his wounded wife, they also seized his son, a clean-shaven, 30-year-old businessman in a suit, whose job was to travel internationally as an ISIS envoy.
“Among the documents were also references to 15 trucks containing a secret French supply of anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, which had been seized by ISIS after they crossed from Turkey at Bab al-Hawa,’’ the Syrian rebel commander said. The documents Haji Bakr left behind, and an illuminating set of leaks from within ISIS, afford a unique insight into the internal affairs and motivations of the ultra-radical organisation.
Confirming the worst consequences of the British and US invasion of Iraq, Haji Bakr — real name Samir Abd Mouhammad al-Khleifawi — was an unlikely jihadist. He was serving as a colonel in Saddam’s army when the US-led coalition toppled the secular Baathist regime in 2003.
Arrested by the Americans, Haji Bakr was held in Camp Bucca, where four of the six current most senior ISIS figures, including al-Baghdadi, were also incarcerated. In the shadows of the watchtowers of the US prison, the nexus between Saddam’s henchmen and Islamic extremists began.
No better contemporary evidence of the union — born from Iraqi Sunni hatred of US forces and the Shia-led government — exists than the alleged appearance two days ago of one of Saddam’s few surviving henchmen.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was seen in Tikrit with victorious ISIS fighters. Locals were filmed raising pictures of Saddam alongside black Islamic flags. By last year, Haji Bakr had gained the trust of the notoriously paranoid al-Baghdadi and was given command of ISIS’s all-Iraqi military council.
While al-Baghdadi, real name Ibrahim al-Badri, cemented his power through a cult of personality and a series of savage internal purges, behind the scenes in Iraq and Syria, Haji Bakr developed the core organisational structure of ISIS. Yet he never lived to see the fruits of his labour.