The story of al Qaeda militant Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, a Kurd from Mosul

Translated by: Turgay BAYINDIR /
Orjinal Metin (tr-11/16/2014)

If he had not been caught in Gaziantep, he was going to be the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The legendary Palestinian Jordanian leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab al Zarqawi was killed by American forces on June 7, 2006. To replace al Zarqawi, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appointed one his most trusted men Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, a Kurd who was born in Mosul. Al Iraqi had entered Turkey from Iran and was on his way to first Syria and from there to Iraq, in order to take over the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq that was temporarily filled by Abu Hamza al Muhajir.
However, on the afternoon of October 16, 2006, around 3 pm he was arrested in Gaziantep while he was getting ready to cross the border to Syria. According to the Iranian passports they carried, he was Mohammad Reza Ranjbar Rezaei (39), traveling with his wife Cheshmnaz Fotohiashena Abad (40) and their children Mohammad (9), Fatemeh (7), Ali (6) and Leila (4).  
Since their lawyer Osman Karahan applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek asylum for them, he and his family were first sent to the refugee camp in Yozgat. Then, early on October 31, 2006 around 2 am, he was deported from Istanbul on a plane to Afghanistan.

The Changing Fate of al Qaeda

Upon the arrest of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, Abu Omar al Baghdadi assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq. After he was killed in April 2010, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the new leader. Three years later, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi changed the name of al Qaeda in Iraq as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Soon after, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi broke ties with al Qaeda and after the capture of Mosul he announced the establishment of a caliphate and declared himself the caliph.
The arrest of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi was made news for the first time 6 months later by CNN in April of 2007. The US Department of Defense officials reportedly told CNN that al Iraqi was captured towards the end of 2006 and after his interrogation was completed in secret CIA interrogation camps, he was transferred to the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba in April 2007.
A month after this news coverage, on May 23, 2007, parts of an interview done by as-Sahab, the media outlet of al Qaeda, with the Afghanistan leader of al Qaeda Mustafa abu Yazid were aired on al Jazeera. In this interview al Yazid stated that Abdul Hadi al Iraqi who was to replace al Zarqawi in Iraq was captured by Turkish authorities and handed over to the USA, and he threatened that “their penalty will come from God and then from the mujahedeen”.

‘Agent of Terror’

Born in 1961, the real name of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi is Nashwan Abdulrazaq Abdulbaqi. He is a Kurd who was born in the north of Mosul. He served in the Iraqi Army and was promoted to a Major during Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is known that he went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and joined al Qaeda there. He soon became al Qaeda’s Internal Operations Chief. He was accused of being involved in (unsuccessful) plots to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and of commanding attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan in collaboration with Taliban forces.
It is said that after Iraq became a primary jihad land with the American invasion, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi was Osama bin Laden’s most trusted man regarding Iraq. According to Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai’s article that was published in Newsweek in April 2006, bin Laden, who was not happy with the way Zarqawi was leading al Qaeda in Iraq, sent two of his most trusted men Saif al Adel and Abdul Hadi al Iraqi one by one to Iraq. Al Adel was apprehended in Iran but al Iraqi was able to reach Zarqawi. Al Iraqi first had a series of meetings with Zarqawi and reached the conclusion that Zarqawi was exactly the man for al Qaeda in Iraq. Then he convinced Zarqawi to declare his loyalty to bin Laden and al Qaeda. When he went back to Afghanistan, his positive report made bin Laden to issue an audiotape in which he presented Zarqawi as “the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq”.
Called as “an agent of terror” by Afghan journalist Yousafzai, al Iraqi is reported to have travelled through the Gulf states to raise millions of dollars for al Qaeda. On another note, he is described by one Taliban leader as follows: “He is just like any Afghan. He doesn’t have the arrogance and formality of other Arabs”. On one of al Iraqi’s visits to Iraq, Zarqawi told al Iraqi, who was fluent in several regional dialects spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan in addition to speaking Kurdish and Arabic, “If life gets too difficult in Afghanistan you are welcome to come here to Iraq with bin Laden ”.
A couple of years after this invitation, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi left Afghanistan with the aim of going to Iraq to replace the owner of the invitation who had been killed. However, his trip ended in Gaziantep. Al Iraqi was returning to his home country for good after living in Afghanistan for many years. That is why he was accompanied by his wife and four children. In some cases traveling with family can function as camouflage but other times it has the opposite effect, attracting too much attention. However, it is understood that the real actor in al Iraqi’s arrest was the US that had delivered a heavy blow to al Qaeda in Iraq by killing Zarqawi and mobilized all its intelligence resources in order to prevent them from getting back on their feet. Yet, we should give Turkey its due: apparently Turkish security forces tracked al Iraqi’s every move from the moment he entered Turkish territory and in approximately 20 days, they put him and his family on a plane to Afghanistan.
Hakkari-Van-Gaziantep Route

Al Iraqi operation was made possible through the audio-tracking of two individuals who acted in al Qaeda’s name based in Gaziantep. One of these is Mehmet Yılmaz, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 and was deported to Turkey. He was released from prison five months after he arrived Turkey. The other one was Mehmet Reşit Işık who was acting in the capacity of the assistant of Mehmet Yılmaz. First, it was detected that Işık had bought a new cellphone line right before going to Iran at the end of September 2006 and this number was taken under audio tracking. In the meantime, it was discovered that Yılmaz also went to Iran two weeks after Işık. Three days prior to their departure, Turkish security forces reportedly received intelligence indicating that Yılmaz planned to help al Iraqi and his family enter Turkey and then see them through their trip to Iraq, so the security forces were waiting for their arrival.
Finally, Mehmet Reşit Işık used his new cellphone line for the first time on October 13 in Hakkari. Işık had entered the country from Iran through the Hakkari Esendere border crossing, and later went to Yüksekova to meet Abdul Hadi al Iraqi and his family who had entered the country illegally.
The following day around noon, Işık and al Iraqi family got on a bus that left from Van on their way to Gaziantep. After learning from Işık that everything went well, Mehmet Yılmaz also crossed the border from Iran to Hakkari on October 14th and then he went from there to Gaziantep.   

Miriad IDs

In order to not leave anything to chance, security forces collaborated with Bitlis police force to stop the bus and check everyone’s IDs. From the photograph of al Iraqi that they had, the police in Bitlis confirmed that he was on the bus with his family but did not take anyone under arrest. Al Iraqi family arrived Gaziantep in the evening of October 14 and settle in the home of a person named H.K.
In the meantime, meetings were going on in Ankara attended also by CIA officials. CIA first demanded that al Iraqi should be arrested immediately and deported to Iraq as soon as possible. However, in Turkish laws al Iraqi and his family could only be accused of traveling with false ID documents and deportation procedure can only be done according to regulations only by Directorate of Foreign Nationals. What is more, it was not possible to deport al Iraqi to Iraq because there was no treaty between the two countries regarding deportation of criminals. 
While these discussions were going on, al Iraqi and his family were picked up by a man named Mehmet Polat on the afternoon of October 16 from the home where they stayed in order to be taken to Syria (and then to Iraq). Upon this, security forces started an operation and took everyone involved under arrest. 
The police already knew that the man who was arrested with the Iranian passport belonging to Mohammad Reza Ranjbar Rezaei was actually an Iraqi Kurd named Nashwan Abdulrezaq Abdulbaqi who was using the name Abdul Hadi al Iraqi within al Qaeda. However, during interrogation, al Iraqi said that he was not Iranian but from Afghanistan, and that he was Yar Muhammad’s son Abrurrahman. He also said that his wife Cheshmnaz Fotohiashena was in reality an Afghan citizen named Sonla Zalmay.
According to their interrogation statements, they had left their country due to the bad economic situation and first went to Iran. With the false Iranian passports they had bought there, they were planning to travel through Turkey and Syria in order to get to Europe. They reported that under current circumstances they wanted to seek asylum in Turkey or ask to be sent back to Pakistan. 

In CIA’s hands

Al Iraqi family were taken to the court the next day and released. They were handed over to the Directorate of Foreign Nationals in order to be deported. In order not to be deported, the family applied for asylum from Turkey as expected. What is even more interesting is that it was found out that the day they were arrested, their lawyer Osman Karahan went to Gaziantep to apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek asylum for them. As part of the procedure during the assessment of their applications, they were placed in a refugee camp in Yozgat. In the end their asylum request was rejected. Under normal circumstances they would have been deported to their native country Iraq but since there is no treaty for the deportation of criminals between the two countries, it was not possible to deport them to Iraq. Finally, it was decided that al Iraqi, his wife and their four children should be deported to Afghanistan which they claimed to be citizens of, even though it was known that this statement was false. Following this decision, they were taken to Istanbul on October 30, 2006 and they were put on the Turkish Airlines TK 706 flight to Kabul at 2 am on October 31.   
What happened after that is not known. It is supposed that he was picked up by CIA officials in Kabul and taken to Bagram military base. Al Iraqi was then kept in secret CIA interrogation camps, and according to officially released information, was sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp with other al Qaeda and Taliban suspects in April 2007, after “all necessary information was extracted from him”.
Abdul Hadi al Iraqi appeared in front of a judge for the first time on June 18, 2014. If we consider that he was captured by American forces on October 31, 2006, it is exactly 7 years, 7 months and 17 days later, that is, 2787 days later.   

Not many have been in touch with al Iraqi and are still alive

Osman Karahan who was Abdul Hadi al Iraqi’s lawyer in Turkey, died while fighting for al Qaeda in an armed clash with the Syrian Army forces in Aleppo at the beginning of August 2012. Almost all other key names who were in touch with al Iraqi while he was in Turkey had similar fates. First, Mehmet Yılmaz and Mehmet Emin Işık who were instrumental in al Iraqi’s arrival in Gaziantep from Iran, were killed on June 23, 2007 by American military forces in Iraq in the south of Kirkuk near the town of Hawija. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for US military in Iraq, referred to them as “two very significant international terrorists” and said that Yılmaz, who was using the name of Khaled al Turki, helped bring foreign fighters to Iraq and Işık was his assistant.
Claimed to be one of the leading names of the Turkish al Qaeda, Mehmet Yılmaz was 37 when he was killed. He had seven children and was working as a doner kebab vendor in Gaziantep. He was arrested in 2004 in Pakistan and deported to Turkey. He was released after being kept in prison in Turkey for a couple of months. Mehmet Reşit Işık, on the other hand, was a theology student in Syria. He was from the village of Çerimova in Batman’s Beşiri province.
The fact that Yılmaz and Işık, who were not able to help al Iraqi to get to Iraq and maybe even caused al Iraqi to get arrested, died in Iraq seven months later, and the fact that the US military operation near Hawija seems to have been carried out particularly for the two is meaningful.
Seven months after Yılmaz and Işık, on January 24, 2008, Mehmet Polat (41), the person who was arrested while trying to help al Iraqi cross the border from Gaziantep to Syria, was killed by the police in his home together with his son Mehmet Zeki Polat (21) when they got into an armed clash with the police. According to the information released by the police, before he went to Iraq, Mehmet Yılmaz had transferred his responsibilities for al Qaeda activity in Gaziantep to Mehmet Polat.   

A Series of charges and Trial for life in prison

Even though he is in Guantanamo, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi is still alive when the four people who established contact with him in Turkey died in three different countries in armed fight. The US Department of Defense announced a series of charges against him for the first time 7 years after his capture, on June 10, 2013. The military commision’s charges against al Iraqi are as follows:
·  that Abd al Hadi joined al Qaeda by 1996; 
·  that he served as a high-ranking leader on various senior councils that set al Qaeda’s agenda and policies; 
·  that he was a significant al Qaeda liaison to the Taliban, to al Qaeda in Iraq, and to other allied groups; 
·  that he commanded al Qaeda’s insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, during which he supported, supplied, funded, and/or directed attacks against U.S. and coalition forces; 
·  that these operations made use of a variety of unlawful means, including attacking civilians, targeting civilian areas, and firing upon a medical helicopter as it attempted to recover casualties; 
·  that he directed his fighters to kill all coalition soldiers encountered during their attacks, thereby denying quarter to potential captive or wounded coalition soldiers. 
·  that he was assigned by Osama bin Laden to travel to Iraq to assume the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Mussab al Zarqawi’s death. 

In front of the judge for the first time

The demanded sentence for the accusations against Abdul Hadi al Iraqi is confinement for life. He appeared in front of a judge for these accusations for the first time on June 18, 2014, a year after the charges were officially announced and 2787 days after his capture. The first hearing lasted half an hour. The judge, Navy Captain J. Kirk Waits read the charges to the 53 year-old man with white tunic, trousers, turban and chest-long salt-and-pepper beard and asked if he had anything to say. Al Iraqi wanted a civilian attorney as well as the assigned military lawyers.  
One of his assigned attorneys, army Lt. Col. Chris Callen reported that al Iraqi follows news closely, is especially concerned about the developments in Afghanistan and Iraq where his extended family live. Callen said, “Not that he really trusts the system or that he thinks he's going to get a fair shake or anything but he seemed to be very happy that it's moving forward."

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