Skip to main content

How the Islamic State evolved in an American prison


Camp Bucca in 2008. (Photos by Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

In March 2009, in a wind-swept sliver of Iraq, a sense of uncertainty befell the southern town of Garma, home to one of the Iraq war’s most notorious prisons. The sprawling Camp Bucca detention center, which had detained some of the war’s most radical extremists along the Kuwait border, had just freed hundreds of inmates. Families rejoiced, anxiously awaiting their sons, brothers and fathers who had been lost to Bucca for years. But a local official fretted.

“These men weren’t planting flowers in a garden,” police chief Saad Abbas Mahmoud told The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, estimating that 90 percent of the freed prisoners would soon resume fighting. “They weren’t strolling down the street. This problem is both big and dangerous. And regrettably, the Iraqi government and the authorities don’t know how big the problem has become.”

Mahmoud’s assessment of Camp Bucca, which funneled 100,000 detainees through its barracks and closed months later, would prove prescient. The camp now represents an opening chapter in the history of the Islamic State — many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were incarcerated and probably met there. According to former prison commanders, analystsand soldiers, Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration — and was formative in the development of today’s most potent jihadist force.

Camp Bucca funneled 100,000 detainees through its barracks.

In all, nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca,according to the terrorism research firm Soufan Group. Apart from Baghdadi himself, who spent five years there, his deputy, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, as well as senior military leader Haji Bakr, now deceased, and the leader of foreign fighters, Abu Qasim, were incarcerated there, Soufansaid. Though it’s likely that the men were extremists when they entered Bucca, the group added, it’s certain they were when they left.

“Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” wrote military veteran Andrew Thompson and academic Jeremi Suri in the New York Times this month. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. … The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”

Many inmates at Camp Bucca were guilty of attacking U.S. soldiers. But many more were not.

It’s a scenario that has long confounded law enforcement: How do you crack down on extremism without creating more of it? From theradicalization of white supremacists in U.S. prisons to Britain’s disastrous bid in the 1970s to incarcerate Irish Republican Army members, the problem is nothing new: Prisons are pools of explosive extremism awaiting a spark.

And at Camp Bucca, there was no shortage of sparks. As news of Baghdadi’s tenure at Bucca emerged, former prison commander James Skylar Gerrond remembered many of them. “Re: Badghadi,” he wrote on Twitter in July, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.” He worked at the prison between 2006 and 2007, when it was glutted with tens of thousands of radicals, including Baghdadi.


Many were guilty of attacking American soldiers. But many more were not — “simply being a ‘suspicious looking’ military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars,” according to the Times opinion piece. Shadid reported as much in 2009, confirming that many viewed it “as an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them [and] freed detainees may end up swelling the ranks of a subdued insurgency.”

In all, nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Camp Bucca, according to the terrorism research firm Soufan Group.

That this subdued insurgency eventually caught fire isn’t much of a surprise. At the height of the Iraq troop “surge” in 2007, when the prison was glutted with 24,000 inmates, it seethed with extremism. Inhabitants were divided along sectarian lines to ameliorate tension, a military reportsaid, and inmates settled their disputes according to Islamic law. “Inside the wire at these compounds are Islamic extremists who will maim or kill fellow detainees for behavior they consider against Islam,” the military report said.

“Sharia courts enforce a lot of rules inside the compounds,’” one soldier quoted in the report said. “‘Anyone who takes part in behavior which is seen as ‘Western’ is severely punished by the extremist elements of the compound…. It’s quite appalling sometimes.’”

Prison commanders such as Gerrond observed the growing extremism. “There was a huge amount of collective pressure exerted on detainees to become more radical in their beliefs,” he told Mother Jones. “… Detainees turn[ed] to each other for support. If there were radical elements within this support network, there was always the potential that detainees would become more radical.”

Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration.

But the unique setting at Bucca, which thrust together Saddam Hussein’s Baathist secularists and Islamist fundamentalists, set the stage for something perhaps worse: collaboration. At the prison, the two seemingly incongruous groups joined to form a union “more than a marriage of convenience,” Soufan reported.

Soufan found that each group offered the other something it lacked. In the ex-Baathists, jihadists found organizational skills and military discipline. In the jihadists, ex-Baathists found purpose. “In Bucca, the math changed as ideologues adopted military and bureaucratic traits and as bureaucrats became violent extremists,” the Soufan report said.

From the ashes of what former inmates called an “al-Qaeda school” rose the Islamic State. Indeed, when those inhabitants freed in 2009 returned to Baghdad, The Post reported, they spoke of two things: their conversion to radicalism — and revenge.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why States Still Use Barrel Bombs

Smoke ascends after a Syrian military helicopter allegedly dropped a barrel bomb over the city of Daraya on Jan. 31.(FADI DIRANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Summary
Barrel bombs are not especially effective weapons. They are often poorly constructed; they fail to detonate more often than other devices constructed for a similar purpose; and their lack of precision means they can have a disproportionate effect on civilian populations.

However, combatants continue to use barrel bombs in conflicts, including in recent and ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and they are ideally suited to the requirements of resource-poor states.

Analysis


Barrel bombs are improvised devices that contain explosive filling and shrapnel packed into a container, often in a cylindrical shape such as a barrel. The devices continue to be dropped on towns all over Syria. Indeed, there have been several documented cases of their use in Iraq over the past months, and residents of the city of Mosul, which was recently …

Russia Looks East for New Oil Markets

Click to Enlarge


In the final years of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began orienting his foreign policy toward Asia in response to a rising Japan. Putin has also piloted a much-touted pivot to Asia, coinciding with renewed U.S. interest in the area. A good expression of intent was Russia's hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2012 in Vladivostok, near Russia's borders with China and North Korea. Although its efforts in Asia have been limited by more direct interests in Russia's periphery and in Europe, Moscow recently has been able to look more to the east.

Part of this renewed interest involves finding new export markets for Russian hydrocarbons. Russia's economy relies on energy exports, particularly crude oil and natural gas exported via pipeline to the West. However, Western Europe is diversifying its energy sources as new supplies come online out of a desire to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies.

This has forced…

In Yemen, a Rebel Advance Could Topple the Regime

Shia loyal to the al-Houthi movement ride past Yemeni soldiers near Yaz, Yemen, in May. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Summary


The success of a rebel campaign in northern Yemen is threatening to destabilize the already weak and overwhelmed government in Sanaa. After capturing the city of Amran, a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital, in early July, the rebels from the al-Houthi tribe are in their strongest position yet. The Yemeni government is developing plans to divide the country into six federal regions, and the rebels believe this is their chance to claim territory for the future bargaining.

The central government is nearly powerless to fend off the rebels; its forces are already stretched thin. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has intervened in Yemen before and still supports Sunni tribes in the north, but the risk of inciting a Shiite backlash or creating space for jihadists to move in could deter another intervention.

Analysis


Followers of Zaidi Islam, a branch of Shiism, rul…