Uncertainty surrounded reports Tuesday that Lebanese authorities had detained a wife of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, head of the militant group Islamic State.
Various news outlets cited security sources as saying that a woman identified as one of Baghdadi’s wives had been taken into custody while trying to cross into Lebanon from neighboring Syria. The reports made worldwide headlines and sparked speculation about potential hostage swaps and a possible intelligence bonanza.
But there was no official confirmation from Lebanese authorities.
Conflicting details circulated about the reported arrest of the woman, identified as Saja Dulaimi. She was reportedly detained with another person, alternately identified in media reports as her son or daughter. The varying accounts and lack of confirmation led some observers to doubt that the person arrested was Baghdadi’s wife.
State media confirmed Tuesday that Lebanese army intelligence officers had arrested the wife of Anas Sharkas, described by the official Lebanese news agency as a “senior leader” in Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria. Authorities did not release the woman’s name.
Al Nusra Front and Islamic State, once allies, are now bitter rivals for territorial control in Syria. The two militant factions, sharing an Al Qaeda pedigree, split last year in a dispute that resulted in armed conflict between their respective followers.
The woman identified as the wife of the Nusra commander was arrested along with her brother in Zgharta, a town in northern Lebanon, reported the official National News Agency.
The report said that Sharkas “is connected to the issue of military hostages,” an apparent reference to about two dozen Lebanese soldiers being held by militants in Syria. No more details were available.
Meanwhile, state media reported Tuesday that an unspecified “terrorist group” ambushed a Lebanese army patrol in a rural area close to the Syrian border, killing six soldiers and wounding one. Militant factions from Syria have periodically attacked the Lebanese military, especially near the border zone.
The woman identified in the media as a wife of Baghdadi carried a false identification when arrested in recent days at an unspecified border crossing, said the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which first reported the arrest. She was taken to the Ministry of Defense, where “investigations with her are ongoing,” the newspaper said.
Islamic State has declared a “caliphate” across vast stretches of territory under its control in Syria and neighboring Iraq. The Pentagon has launched an air campaign against the group.
Lebanese authorities have been cracking down on Sunni Muslim militants, including supporters of Islamic State and Al Nusra Front, who are active in the country.
Relatively little is known about the personal life of Baghdadi, an Iraqi cleric believed to be in his early 40s. He is a leader of Al Qaeda-linked militants fighting against Iraqi government forces.
The self-proclaimed caliph made a breakout public appearance in July, delivering a sermon at the Grand Mosque in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, which had been overrun by his followers the previous month. A video of his sermon was posted on the Internet, showing Baghdadi as a bulky, bearded figure who appeared to walk with a limp.
Some unconfirmed reports have said that Baghdadi was injured last month during a U.S. air raid in Iraq that killed an top aide.
Baghdadi, whose real name is said to be Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al Badri, was held by U.S. forces in Iraq as a “civilian internee” for 11 months before he was released in December 2004, according to the Pentagon. His Iraqi-based insurgent group moved into Syria after the outbreak of war there in 2011 and eventually split from Al Qaeda.
Bulos is a special correspondent.