ISIS Used a U.S. Prison as Boot Camp

In an excerpt from their new book on ISIS, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how jihadists used a U.S.-run Iraqi prison to coordinate with al Qaeda.

Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, American journalist Michael Weiss and Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan explain how these violent extremists evolved from a nearly defeated Iraqi insurgent group into a jihadi army of international volunteers who behead Western hostages in slickly produced videos and have conquered territory equal to the size of Great Britain. Beginning with the early days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’s first incarnation as “al Qaeda in Iraq,” Weiss and Hassan explain who the key players are—from their elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the former Saddam Baathists in their ranks—where they come from, how the movement has attracted both local and global support, and where their financing comes from.

The following excerpt concerns Iraq midway through the first decade of this century.

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic state of Iraq (ISI) weren’t only using U.S.-run prisons as “jihadi universities,” according to Major General Doug Stone; they were actively trying to infiltrate those prisons to cultivate new recruits. In 2007, Stone assumed control over the entire detention and interrogation program in Iraq, with an aim to rehabilitation. Not only had the internationally publicized and condemned torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison left a permanent stain on the occupation and America’s credibility in the war, but theater detainment facilities had also been used as little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists. Camp Bucca, based in the southern province of Basra, was especially notorious.

According to one U.S. military estimate, Bucca housed 1,350 hardened takfiri [a takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy] terrorists amid a general population of 15,000, yet there was little to no oversight as to who was allowed to integrate with whom. Owing to the spike in military operations coinciding with the surge, the detainee number nearly doubled to 26,000 when Stone took command in 2007.

“Intimidation was weekly, killing was bimonthly,” Stone recalled in an interview. “It was a pretty nasty place that was out of control when I got there. They used cigarettes and matches to burn down their tents and mattresses, and when we tried to rebuild the tents, they’d just burn them down again. We thought they’d burn the whole goddamn prison down.”

Stone introduced a de-radicalization program, featuring lectures by moderate Muslim imams who used the Quran and hadith to try and persuade extremists that theirs was a distorted interpretation of Islam. He started to compartmentalize inmates into what were known as Modular Detainee Housing Units (MDHUs). “Before that, we had guys in the MDHUs to segregate those who had been intimidated or beaten from those who did the intimidating and beating up.”

During his 18-month tenure, Stone either led, oversaw, or consulted on more than 800,000 detainee interrogations, observing several “trends” among the AQI population. In a PowerPoint presentation he prepared for the U.S. military’s central command (CENTCOM), summarizing his findings, Stone corroborated much of what Mullah Najim Jibouri had told military officials about this period, namely that foreign fighters were looked on unfavorably as “Iraqis [who were] trying to re-assume leadership roles.” Baathists were “attempting to use the ISI banner to regain control of some areas.” Jihadists cared more about their hometowns or local areas than they did about global or regional terrorism. AQI’s use of women and children as suicide bombers had “disgusted” many. Money, not ideology, was the primary motivation for joining AQI. Finally, AQI’s emir Abu Ayyub al-Masri was “not an influential figure to most ... however[,] younger, more impressionable detainees” were swayed by the figure of ISI emir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Early on in his command, Stone noticed a strange phenomenon that pertained exclusively to the takfiri detainees—they would enter Camp Bucca asking to join the AQI bloc, often with foreknowledge of how the prison worked and how detainees were housed. “Sometimes guys would allow themselves to be caught. Then, in the intake process, they’d ask to be put in a specific compound which housed a lot of the al Qaeda guys. The takfiris were extremely well organized in Bucca; they arranged where their people slept and where they were moved to based on their Friday night prayers. In fact, one of the large cell areas was nicknamed Camp Caliphate. The more I heard it, the more I began to think, Even if they can’t get it done, they sure as shit believe they can.”

Prison culture in Iraq was such that anyone picked up by U.S. forces without any form of identification would give his name and then have his biometric data processed. Iris scans, fingerprints, and DNA samples were collected from all detainees. But often the names given during the intake were fake. “Some of them would have a different name for every interrogation. It was only through biometrics that we were later able to track recidivism rates,” Stone said.

Early on, Stone said, he came across a detainee whose listed surname was Baghdadi. There was nothing inherently eyebrow-raising about that—insurgents often take their city or country of origin (or the city or country they’d like people to think they’re from) as a nom de guerre. But this Baghdadi stood apart from others. Stone said, “His name came up on a list of people that I had. They listed him as a guy who had significant al-Qaeda links. The psychologists rated him as someone who was a really strong wannabe—not in the sociopathic category, but a serious guy who [had] a serious plan. He called himself an imam and viewed himself not as a descendant of Muhammad—we had a few of those at Bucca—but someone with a very strong religious orientation. He was holding Sharia court and conducting Friday services from the platform of being an imam.”

This Baghdadi was pensive and hardly a jailhouse troublemaker. “We had hundreds like him in what we termed the ‘leadership category,’” Stone said. “We ended up referring to him as an ‘irreconcilable,’ someone for whom sermons by moderate imams weren’t going to make the slightest difference. So here’s the quiet, unassuming guy who had a very strong religious viewpoint, and what does he do? He starts to meet the ‘generals.’ By that I mean, we had a lot of criminals and guys who were in the Iraqi army who called themselves generals, but they were low-ranking officers in Saddam’s army.” All the high-level former Iraqi military officials and hard-core Baathists, including Saddam himself, were detained at Camp Cropper, another U.S.-run facility based in Baghdad International Airport. Cropper was also the processing center for Bucca detainees. “Some of the generals shared Baghdadi’s religious perspective and joined the takfiris—big beards and all of that.”

Stone said he believes that this man was in fact a decoy sent by ISI to pose as the elusive Abu Omar al-Baghdadi to penetrate Bucca and use his time there to mint new holy warriors. “If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it. We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat. Who needs a safe house in Anbar when there’s an American jail in Basra?”

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A former ISIS member interviewed by the Guardian confirmed Stone’s appraisal. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” Abu Ahmed told the newspaper. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred [meters] away from the entire al Qaeda leadership.”

Abu Ahmed recounted how jihadist detainees scribbled one another’s phone numbers and hometowns on the elastic waistbands of their underwear and had a ready-made network upon their release. “When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009 many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”

That a decoy al-Baghdadi was recruiting from the ranks of the lower or middle cadres of the former Iraqi army made perfect sense to Richard, the former Pentagon official. “We tend to look at the Iraqi army as a joke, but it was a professional army, a very large army,” he said. “What we would consider junior officers—such as captains, majors, warrant officers—we’d be dismissive of those guys in Iraq. In Arab armies, usually those are the guys that are the true professionals. The guys that rise higher than major, the real generals in Saddam’s military, have tribal connections, family money. They buy their way in. The mid-grade officers are the ones who matter. Those dudes rocked. How else are they going to make money? Their families are starving, they gotta make money. ‘I’ll put together a convoy ambush, piece together a couple of rounds into an IED, and these guys will pay me.’ Eventually they became pretty successful and they joined up with various insurgent groups, including al Qaeda.”

Around 70 percent of Bucca inmates in 2008 were there for about a year or so. “What this meant in reality”—Craig Whiteside, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote in an essay for the website War on the Rocks—“is that your average Bucca detainee was incarcerated for a year or two before being released, despite being involved in fairly serious violence against the coalition or Iraqi government. There were even examples of insurgents who were sent to and then released from Bucca multiple times—despite specializing in making roadside bombs.”

Camp Bucca was closed in 2009 in line with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between Washington and Baghdad, which mandated that U.S.-held prisoners either be let go or transferred into Iraqi custody, and that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, handing over all security responsibilities to their Iraqi counterparts. In December 2008 President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki signed SOFA in Baghdad at a ceremony more remembered for its violent disruption—an audience member threw his shoes at Bush—than its diplomatic breakthrough.

Excerpted from ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan. Published by Regan Arts. Used with permission.

Michael Weiss is a columnist for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon. He is also a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia, where he is the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, an online translation journal.

Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for The National newspaper. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times.