The future leader of the militant army sweeping through Iraq had some chilling words for his guards in 2009 when he was released from Camp Bucca, the largest U.S. detention camp in Iraq at the time: "I'll see you guys in New York."
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's words weren't really taken as a threat, Army Col. Kenneth King, the then-commander of the internment camp told The Daily Beast
, because al-Baghdadi knew most of his captors were from New York.
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Most of the reservists were with the 306 Military Police Battalion, based on Long Island, and were drawn from New York police or fire departments. In addition, the camp was named for FDNY Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca, who was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
But King said he was surprised to learn that al-Baghdadi was the leader of the extremist army threatening to overrun Baghdad.
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"I’m not surprised that it was someone who spent time in Bucca, but I’m a little surprised it was him," King said. "He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst."
It didn't take long for al-Baghdadi to show his true self, though. After taking the reins in 2010, al-Baghdadi successfully transformed what had been an umbrella organization affiliated with al-Qaida, which was focused mainly on Iraq, into a transnational military force
, reports The Associated Press.
Al-Baghdadi, who now has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, got his beginnings with the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011 against President Bashar Assad and opened the door to his greater ambitions. Al-Baghdadi dispatched trusted militants to Syria to set up a group called the Nusra Front while he personally remained in Iraq, according to an audio recording later released by the Nusra Front's commander.
In the spring of 2013, al-Baghdadi's fighters moved from Iraq into northern and eastern Syria. He proclaimed that his group would lead the jihadi cause in both countries.
King told The Daily Beast he is frustrated that al-Baghdadi was released, but that there was no way to predict how al-Baghdadi would turn out.
King said al-Baghdadi was not assigned to a camp section for the worst offenders and was not one of the extremists presiding over the Sharia courts that sought to enforce fundamentalist Islamic laws over prisoners.
One former camp official, who asked that his name not be used, said guards kept watch for prisoners who were showing "leadership skills," and kept Sunni and Shiite extremists separate.
"You have to constantly stay after it because it constantly changes, sometimes day by day," the officer said.
King said the prisoners were also moved often to keep them from spotting weakness in security.
"The detainees have nothing but time," King says. "They’re looking at patterns, they’re looking at routines, they’re looking for opportunities."
But prisoners were adept at avoiding notice, said the other officer, and that includes al-Baghdadi during his four years at Camp Bucca.
"A lot of times, the really bad guys tended to operate behind the scenes because they wanted to be invisible," the other officer says.
But King said he and his guards would have known if al-Baghdadi was one of the problem prisoners, and that he thought he'd seen the last of the prisoner in 2009 when he was shipped off with others in the months before Camp Bucca closed.
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