Last week, Saja al-Duleimi and her 10-year-old son were taken into custody as they tried to cross a checkpoint from Syria into northern Lebanon. Depending on who you believe, Duleimi was either the wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; his ex-wife; or the spouse of one of Baghdadi’s enemies in al Qaeda. She may or may not have been previously in custody, exchanged for 13 nuns. And her son may or may not have undergone a DNA test to prove that he’s the offspring the world’s most notorious jihadi.
The answers to those questions wouldn’t just solve a mystery that’s quickly become the talk of the Middle East. They could offer clues into the nature of the region’s two most powerful Islamist armies.
Most sources agree that a woman and child with connections to a jihadi group active in Syria were arrested in Lebanon—but their identities and connection to ISIS are still something of a riddle.
On Tuesday, one Lebanese official was quoted as saying Duleimi had “confessed during interrogation” to being Baghdadi’s wife. But ISIS sympathizers quickly took to social media to deny the story. The closest thing to a response from the American government on Tuesday came from Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, who said U.S. officials believe the woman arrested in Lebanon is “a former wife of al Baghdadi.”
On Wednesday morning the Iraqi Interior Ministry issued its own statements denying that the woman captured was Baghdadi’s wife. CNN quotes a ministry official saying, "There is no wife named Saja al-Dulaimi," a judgement based on intelligence sources within the Iraqi government who say that al-Dulaimi is not one of two names they have on file for Baghdadi’s wives.
The Lebanese army has not yet released an official statement on the arrests, though multiple statements from unnamed officials have been leaked to reporters.
According to some news outlets, including The Guardian, Lebanese officials claim they have confirmed the boy’s identity through DNA testing. Still other media sources are reporting that the DNA test is awaiting results. Baghdadi’s DNA was likely obtained during his imprisonment in a U.S. military detention facility in Iraq.
France24, meanwhile, has called the whole story into question, citing sources who say Duleimi was not Baghdadi’s wife but the wife of a another jihadi leader from a separate group, ISIS’s rival, al-Nusra Front.
Adding to the confusion, Lebanese media has reported that the wife of a Nusra Front leader was also recently arrested.
Duleimi, whether she was one of Baghdadi’s current wives or an ex, would not have been a stranger to Lebanese security officials. She was reportedly imprisoned once before in Lebanon and released in March in a prisoner swap that freed 13 nuns who had been held hostage by the Nusra Front.
She may have been placed under some sort of surveillance after her release in March, and her recent arrest could have been the result of more than just a lucky checkpoint inspection. Former CIA officer Patrick Skinner considered the odds on the circumstances around Duleimi’s arrest. “It’s clear that either they had the world’s greatest picture of her, which is doubtful,” Skinner told The Daily Beast, “or they knew she was coming.”
ISIS and the Nusra Front were once aligned under the al Qaeda banner but have been bitter rivals over the past year. Despite the two organizations’ open conflict in Syria and for leadership of the global jihad movement, numerous reports in recent months have suggested the some factions have entered a truce and begun working together.
The fact that it was Duleimi who was released in an earlier deal with ISIS’s competitor, the Nusra Front, could be a sign that the France24 account is on to something and she isn’t in fact Baghdadi’s wife but a case of mistaken identity. Or, if she is the ISIS leader’s wife, released in a deal with his rivals Nusra, that could be taken as a lesson in the shifting allegiances in Syria’s civil war and the difficulty of drawing hard lines between factions there.
“It’s so chaotic it makes hostage rescue and negotiations incredibly difficult, because you don’t know if the people holding the hostages today will still have control of them tomorrow,” said Skinner, the former CIA officer.
Whoever it is that Lebanese officials now have in custody, they clearly think she is valuable and worth publicizing. It’s unlikely that Baghdadi or any other leader would share operational details with their wives, though they could reveal useful personal information. That value may have less to do with intelligence than with Duleimi’s potential as a bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations for the release of Lebanese hostages.
“From the Lebanese point of view, they’re looking for leverage,” Skinner said, referring to the approximately 20 Lebanese prisoners held by the Nusra Front since the summer.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with new information.