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Savage 'bastard' or US stooge? Iraqi victims still have questions about Baghdadi's death

MEE speaks to Iraqis who previously talked about how Islamic State had shattered their lives and asked how they see the news of Abu Bakr Baghdadi's death
Injured civilians flee fighting in Mosul's Old City in July 2017 (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Iraq has the dubious accolade of being the birthplace of the Islamic State group.

After its initial formation in 2006 in the wake of the US occupation, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi from Samarra, declared himself to be the state's caliph in July 2014, from Mosul's historic al-Nuri Mosque.

Although the news of Baghdadi's death last week grabbed international headlines, many Iraqis, including those who fell victim to IS, are ambivalent, some not even believing the news.

'Baghdadi's a bastard and he was going to die eventually, so his time had come'

- Adbulrahman, Mosul

"I don't care at all, really," said Mosul resident Abdulrahman, 21, who lost his mother, father and younger brother in a US coalition air strike on three family homes in Mosul in January 2017. "Baghdadi's a bastard, and he was going to die eventually, so his time had come. I'm slightly happier that the world will be way better without his ass in it."

The Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) - the US-led IS-fighting coalition which carried out many controversial air strikes in Mosul - initially denied carrying out the attack on Abdulrahman’s house, which left 18 people dead, despite MEE giving them the exact co-ordinates.

A year later, after a follow-up enquiry, they confirmed the coalition was responsible for this air strike, explaining: "There appears to have been a staff error between March and November last year that resulted in an inaccurate response from CJTF-OIR."

All that remained of Abdulrahman's Mosul family home after a coalition air strike in January 2017 (MEE/Tom Westcott)
All that remained of Abdulrahman's Mosul family home after a coalition air strike in January 2017 (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Abdulrahman, who has managed to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and is now studying medicine at Mosul University, admitted he was more concerned with Iraq's current political situation, where weeks of widespread anti-government protests have brought much of the country to a virtual standstill, than he was about Baghdadi's death.

Too late

Rami Dinha, 25, from Qaraqosh - a town near Mosul, which IS forcibly emptied of its Christian inhabitants save a few elderly people who refused to leave - said the protests had distracted most Iraqis from international news, including Baghdadi's death. The IS leader's demise was still important, he said, albeit coming much too late. 

Rami Dinha on his first visit to his house in Qaraqosh in November 2016. IS set it ablaze and little could be recovered (MEE/Tom Westcott)
Rami Dinha on his first visit to his house in Qaraqosh in November 2016. IS set it ablaze and little could be recovered (MEE/Tom Westcott)

"Baghdadi was responsible for making us leave our towns because of his terrorism and ideology," he said. Many of northern Iraq's Christians fled abroad after 2014, but Dinha’' family returned to Qaraqosh in late 2017, relying on the support of an NGO to help rebuild their damaged home which, like countless others, IS had set ablaze.

Baghdadi's death still wasn't cause for celebration, he said. "We know that IS and its terror will remain in the area as sleeper cells that might still carry out attacks whenever they find the right environment."

Iraqi Christians' fears of future insurgency had been compounded, he said, by Thursday's news that IS already had a new leader - Abu Ibrahim al-Hishami al-Qurayshi. 

For Mohamed al-Shamry, 26, an Arab from Sinjar and a Special Forces soldier, the news of Baghdadi's death cut through Iraq's current problems to resonate deeply with him. His whole family, along with many other Arabs from Sinjar, were displaced by IS in 2014.

Al-Shamry fled to Syria, travelled through the desert alone and crossed back into Iraq further south, convincing suspicious members of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) forces that he was an innocent civilian rather than a rogue IS fighter. He joined the Iraqi armed forces to fight IS, but he and his family remain displaced, living in rented accommodation in Baghdad, after their former properties were looted and destroyed. 

"I am very, very happy that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed because everything that happened to me and my family was his responsibility," he told MEE.

Islamist bogeyman or US stooge?

Baghdadi generated an international "bogeyman" image, by rare media appearances coupled with IS's terrifying media campaign. But, to many Iraqis, he was merely a US stooge.

Throughout the battle against IS and even after the group was declared defeated in Iraq, military commanders routinely answered the question: "Where is Baghdadi?" with the simple answer: "Ask America."

'Baghdadi was just a frontman, like a picture. He was one Iraqi man, but behind him was something much bigger.'

- Hassan, Iraqi Special Forces  

Special Forces second lieutenant Hassan, 28, who MEE first met during a January 2017 advance against IS through the "Mosul Jungle," a riverside playground nestled in a wooded area of the city, was ambivalent about Baghdadi's death.

"I'm not happy or sad about this news. It's not important," he told MEE. Many of his comrades fell during Iraq's battle against IS. Among those, 18 were close friends. He softly listed off the names of his slain friends, pausing sadly at Ali, the popular chef in his unit and a talented singer.

"Yes, they died because of him, but actually Baghdadi was just a frontman, like a picture. He was one Iraqi man, but behind him was something much bigger. When you see the massive reach of IS and what it achieved, it's impossible that this was the work of one man, or even one country. Many countries were involved in creating IS."

Hassan said many Iraqis viewed Baghdadi - who spent 10 months in US-run detention centres in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in 2004 - as an American stooge. 

"Look at where he was before. Baghdadi was probably working for America. Of course, we don't know for sure, but that's what most Iraqis believe," he said. "There's a lot we don't know, and maybe Baghdadi is not even dead."

Fake news to give Trump a boost?

"I don't believe he is dead, and I hope one day that I will kill Baghdadi myself, with my own hands," said Muslim Amerli, the commander of Sayyed Shorhadat Brigade, a Turkmen unit in the Hashd al-Shaabi, who led a successful defence of his Shia Turkmen town, besieged by IS for 89 days.

Muslim Amerli (MEE/Tom Westcott)
Muslim Amerli, commander of Sayyed Shorhadat Brigade, a Turkmen unit in the Hashd al-Shaabi (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Amerli's brother, a widely respected member of the community, was killed in the battle, and a shrine honouring him is kept immaculate in the family's sitting room. Amerli has remained active in the battle against IS, even single-handedly hunting down IS remnants in the Iraqi desert. 

Fellow Turkman, Jawdat Assaf, described the news as "a piece of theatre" staged by the Americans and designed to boost US President Donald Trump's popularity before next year's elections. 

'I don’t believe he is dead, and I hope one day that I will kill Baghdadi myself, with my own hands'

- Muslim Amerli, Turkmen commander

Baghdadi's death is a much-needed media boost for America, after its recent troop withdrawal from Syria was widely reported as a cruel abandonment of Syria's Kurds, with whom US forces had been allied for years. The predominately Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are said to have played a crucial role in helping locate Baghdadi. 

The "fake news' sentiment was echoed in other former IS strongholds. At its height, IS controlled almost one-third of Iraq's territory and, from its Mosul capital, ran a reign of terror across swathes of Iraq and Syria, controlling several "satellite states," including in Libya, and orchestrating global terror attacks. 

"Some Libyans, especially those not personally affected by IS, still doubt it's true,” said Libyan oil worker Fadiel, 46, who was displaced from his home near Sirte by IS in 2016. "Others say it's all a US conspiracy - that the Americans promoted [Osama] bin Laden, then killed him and promoted Baghdadi, then killed him."

But for Fadiel, whose house was commandeered by IS because he once stood in local elections and was "wanted" for participating in western-style democracy, the news was both long-awaited and very welcome. 

"Like many Libyans, I'm really happy and pleased that such a terrible person has been killed," he told MEE. "The world is much safer now, and it's an historical moment that we finally got rid of this cockroach."

IS remains a threat

While some may still have their doubts about Baghdadi's death, on Thursday, IS's new spokesman confirmed the announcement, announcing Baghdadi's successor and issuing the sinister warning: "Do not rejoice America. The new chosen one will make you forget the horror you have beholden ... and make the achievements of the Baghdadi days taste sweet."

'IS did everything and anything for money. They took millions of dollars and now they live like kings in Turkey' 

- Ali, Yazidi hostage negotiator

As a "state," IS may appear to be a spent force, being reduced to a level of insurgency after losing its last main territory in Syria earlier this year. But, according to one Iraqi in regular communication with IS members, with or without Baghadi, the terror group still has a far-reaching support-base.

Yazidi negotiator Ali, 35, one of a handful of Yazidis still trying to rescue captive members of their community - singled out for particularly cruel treatment in 2014 - from IS and other militant groups, told MEE that both Iraq and Turkey were home to many former IS fighters who were already regrouping with a view to relaunching the terror group. 

"IS did everything and anything for money. They took millions of dollars and now they live like kings in Turkey and no one has arrested them. They are free and they are rich," he said.

Ali escaped from IS after being abducted in 2014, but maintains close contacts with IS members through his work negotiating directly with the group, handing over large sums of money to bring Yazidi captives safely back home to Iraq. 

An Iraqi Special Forces soldier finds an IS flag in Mosul (MEE/Tom Westcott)
An Iraqi Special Forces soldier finds an IS flag in Mosul (MEE/Tom Westcott)

"IS still has a lot of support and they are still here in Iraq - from Baghdad to Duhuk. Some IS emirs were arrested just for 10 days and are now living freely in Mosul. They are everywhere, even in Erbil," Ali said, citing his ongoing communications with dispersed IS members as evidence.

"They're going to make a new network, a new version of IS, and are planning a comeback in 2020 with another name. Remember my words."