When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi walked away from a U.S. detention camp in 2009, the future leader of ISIS issued some chilling final words to reservists from Long Island.
King didn’t take these words from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a threat. Al-Baghdadi knew that many of his captors were from New York, reservists with the 306 Military Police Battalion, a unit based on Long Island that includes numerous numerous members of the NYPD and the FDNY. The camp itself was named after FDNY Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca, who was killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
King figured that al-Baghdadi was just saying that he had known all along that it was all essentially a joke, that he had only to wait and he would be freed to go back to what he had been doing.
“Like, ‘This is no big thing, I’ll see you on the block,’” King says.
King had not imagined that in less that five years he would be seeing news reports that al-Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS, the ultra-extremist army that was sweeping through Iraq toward Baghdad.
“I’m not surprised that it was someone who spent time in Bucca but I’m a little surprised it was him,” King says. “He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.”
King allows that along with being surprised he was frustrated on a very personal level.
“We spent how many missions and how many soldiers were put at risk when we caught this guy and we just released him,” King says.
During the four years that al-Baghdadi was in custody, there had been no way for the Americans to predict what a danger he would become. Al-Baghdadi hadn’t even been assigned to Compound 14, which was reserved for the most virulently extremist Sunnis.
“The worst of the worst were kept in one area,” King says. “I don’t recall him being in that group.”“A lot of times, the really bad guys tended to operate behind the scenes because they wanted to be invisible,” the other officer says.
Al-Baghdadi was also apparently not one of the extremists who presided over Sharia courts that sought to enforce fundamentalist Islamic law among their fellow prisoners. One extremist made himself known after the guards put TV sets outside the 16-foot chain-link fence that surrounded each compound. An American officer saw a big crowd form in front of one, but came back a short time later to see not a soul.
“Some guy came up and shooed them all away because TV was Western,” recalls the officer, who asked not to be named. “So we identified who that guy was, put a report in his file, kept him under observation for other behaviors.”
The officer says the guards kept constant watch for clues among the prisoners for coalescing groups and ascending leaders.
“You can tell when somebody is eliciting leadership skills, flag him, watch him further, how much leadership they’re excerpting and with whom,” the other officer says. “You have to constantly stay after it because it constantly changes, sometimes day by day.”
The guards would seek to disrupt the courts along with and any nascent organizations and hierarchies by moving inmates to different compounds, though keeping the Sunnis and the Shiites separate.
“The Bloods with the Bloods and the Crips with the Crips, that kind of thing,” King says.