Even in custody, Abu Omar al Baghdadi proves elusive

Will the real Abu Omar al Baghdadi please stand up? (If you actually exist, that is.)

For the last three weeks, the Iraqi government has been trumpeting its capture of Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and one of the country’s most wanted terrorists.

But it turns out there may be at least two people using the same nom de guerre.

Over in Anbar province, authorities say they have been hunting a different Baghdadi. “Wanted” pictures of that suspect, a bald man, are posted at checkpoints across Anbar, where the Islamic State of Iraq was founded in 2006.


Iraqi government officials say the man they are holding has confessed to being Baghdadi. Pictures they released clearly show a different man, one with hair.

Sheik Ali Hatem Sulaiman, who heads the Dulaim tribe in Anbar and is a founder of the Awakening movement that fought Sunni insurgents there, believes the central government has the wrong man.

“They are talking nonsense,” he said of the claims. “The security forces are always making mistakes in which they confuse people. The real Abu Omar al Baghdadi is bald, while this man has hair.”

But what if they both have their man?

Because Abu Omar al Baghdadi is a nom de guerre, it is entirely possible that two men have been using the same name, Anbar Police Chief Gen. Tariq Yusuf said.

“Maybe there are two of them, in order to confuse the security services,” he said. Anbar police are confident their suspect is the right man, he said, because of evidence they came across at an Al Qaeda hide-out last year.

The man in custody “is a terrorist,” Yusuf said. “But there might be Abu Omar al Baghdadi No. 1 and Abu Omar al Baghdadi No. 2.”

Government officials could not be reached for comment. But several previous claims that they have captured Baghdadi and other top leaders have turned out to be false.

In one instance two years ago, the government announced it had killed Baghdadi, only for the U.S. military to reveal that the dead man was another militant slain a few days earlier by U.S. troops. Iraqi soldiers got the corpse after it had been released for funeral services.

The government’s claims to be holding the real Baghdadi were dented somewhat this week by the release of an audiotape in which a man claiming to be Baghdadi insists he is still free.

U.S. officials have not been given access to the detained man, and the U.S. still has “no operational reporting that confirms the capture or arrest” of Baghdadi, the military says.

In any case, the U.S. has said it’s not even sure Baghdadi exists.

After the Iraqi government announced its first Baghdadi “coup” back in 2007, U.S. Army officials offered a different scenario: Baghdadi was a fictional character, played by an actor, to give an Iraqi face to a foreign terrorist group.