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Time In A U.S.-Run Detention Center Helped Islamic State Leadership


Now to an early chapter in the history of the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS. It starts in 2004 in Iraq. An insurgency was already raging there. This was the year al-Qaida was established in Iraq. Martin Chulov knows this story well. He's a correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper, and he has a source, who goes by the name Abu Ahmed, who says he's a senior official in the ranks of ISIS. Back in 2004, Ahmed got picked up by U.S. forces and put in a prison camp called Bucca, which became a meeting ground for what would come to be known as ISIS. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Chulov about the role that Bucca played in forming ISIS.

MARTIN CHULOV: Bucca was installed in the southern deserts of Iraq as part of the filtering system for the insurgency that by mid-2005 was in full swing.


What do you mean filtering?

CHULOV: There were lots of people cleared up in security sweeps, and those who were deemed to pose any sort of a risk or did have verified links to the Sunni insurgency or the Shia insurgency were quite often sent to Camp Bucca in the South where they were screened and vetted over many months. And that gave people like my source, Abu Ahmed, an opportunity to sit down with other like minds and to plot about what they would do when they were eventually released. He tells me, and many others do in Baghdad, that the time that they spent in these prisons were invaluable in terms of giving them the capacity to network, to organize and potentially plot for when they got out.

INSKEEP: This is something that is said about American prisons with common criminals, that when you're in a prison, there is a certain kind of person you meet, obviously, and certain lawbreakers make connections that serve them later. You're saying that's what happened in Camp Bucca.

CHULOV: Clearly it did. And this comes to us from many people. And according to the Iraqis, of the 25 members of the senior executive if you like - the military council or the Shura council of ISIS - 17 of them have strong connections to Camp Bucca. They were detained there for many months or years.

INSKEEP: Wasn't there also already a major insurgency going on in Iraq before many of the men that you name ended up in Camp Bucca? Wasn't there already a problem with extremism in the region, which also contributed in later years to the formation of ISIS?

CHULOV: Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt about that. The issue for those who are now looking to pick up the pieces a decade later is if these guys were still out in the streets, scattered around Anbar into central Iraq, they perhaps wouldn't have had the organizational capacity that they in fact ended up having by all being placed together in a prison in the southern deserts, where the entire leadership at times was rotated in and out of Camp Bucca, as did many young cadres. They were able to make connections that potentially they weren't able to make back out on the streets.

INSKEEP: In other words, this facility made it possible for an insurgency to metastasize.

CHULOV: It metastasized. They networked. They connected. They plotted. And 10 years later, many of those who were in Bucca are openly saying this did us a world of good. We wouldn't be where we are now were it not for this prison.

INSKEEP: How did Abu Ahmed get out of Camp Bucca?

CHULOV: He was released along with most of those that he was detained with. And from there, he rejoined the insurgency. He had several run-ins with the Iraqi security forces after that. And he spent quite a few years on the run, up until Syria kicked off three years ago when gradually he was drawn back into that arena. And he took up a very senior position within the insurgency in Syria by about mid last year.

INSKEEP: Did he leave Camp Bucca with a list of names, phone numbers, people to call?

CHULOV: He certainly did. And he proudly tells me that he and others wrote those names down on the white elastic of their boxer shorts. They simply peeled the cloth back and wrote those numbers down. And when they got out, they used their boxers to reconnect. He said that was really the only way to defeat their American jailers because that's the one place they didn't look for anything that might be smuggled out of the prison.

GREENE: That was the Guardian's Martin Chulov, speaking about the roots of ISIS with our colleague Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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