For almost a year Abu Abdullah was the most wanted man in Baghdad. He was known among his bosses inside Islamic State as “the planner” – the man responsible for dispatching suicide bombers to attack mosques, universities, checkpoints and market places across the Iraqi capital.
Now his home is a cramped cell in a high-security prison on the city’s fringe, where he has spent the 11 months since his capture.
From there Abdullah outlined to the Guardian his role as the man who consigned more human bombs across Baghdad than, perhaps, any other throughout the decade-long insurgency.
Abdullah is one of the most sensitive of Iraq’s security prisoners and securing access to him took three months of negotiations with intelligence officials. Once permission to meet him was granted, he acknowledged that he had not chosen to be interviewed, but claimed to be speaking freely.
In the wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion that followed he detailed his role as the architect of one of Iraq’s most savage and remorseless terror campaigns.
Abdullah said he readied 15 bombers before his arrest in July last year, praying with them in their final hours before driving them to their targets and then watching from nearby as they blew themselves up.
He estimated that more than 100 people had died in the attacks he orchestrated – often members of the security forces, but sometimes ordinary civilians, including women and children.
“They used to come to me in the workshop,” he said of the nondescript and now abandoned room behind two sets of steel doors in Baghdad’s southern suburbs which for more than a year was Isis’s main command centre in the Iraqi
“I met them at the door, and first I would greet them and look at them to see if they were ready,” he said. “Then we would sit down to pray and read the Qur’an.”
According to Abdullah, not once did someone who was delivered lose their nerve before the mission. All of them, he claimed, succeeded. “I would help them fix their suicide belt and I would hide it so the checkpoints would never find it.
Sometimes we only did that at the last moment.” During the interview, in which Abdullah remained handcuffed and seated, his responses ranged greatly. He was
often candid, then fleetingly reluctant until he was ordered to open up by a hovering guard.
Throughout the past decade, Iraq’s prisons have been condemned by human rights groups as places where torture is routinely used on security prisoners. Abdullah winced when the guards approached him, and a block and chain sat in a plastic crate near the cell door.
He bore no visible physical scars, though, and appeared well nourished – a legacy of what a senior officer said was an order from the government to keep all prisoners fed and in cells with constant electricity and air conditioning.
“Can you imagine that,” the officer sneered. “They have a better life than most people in Baghdad.”
When the guards left the room Abdullah appeared far more at ease, quickly switching from submission to defiance. “What is your message to the west?” he was asked. Abdullah paused briefly, then looked towards the door to see if we were alone.
His eyes flashed: “Islam is coming. What the Islamic State has achieved in the past year cannot be undone. The caliphate is a reality.”
Abdullah, whose real name is Ibrahim Ammar Ali al-Khazali, claimed to have been a member of Isis and all of its earlier incarnations since 2004. His path to violent jihad was unorthodox: he was born a Shia Muslim and practised the faith until the late 1990s, when he converted to Sunni Islam and disavowed the teachings of the rival sect.
He said he had been active in the organisation’s earlier years until 2007 when he was shot in the head during a clash with Iraqi forces. Entry and exit scars were obvious near his left ear and he moved slowly, even taking into account the shackles and chains, as if he had lost some of his motor skills.
Whatever his injury, his resolve appeared to harden in recent years. “It was after 2011 that I got busy again,” he said. “I wanted to live in an Islamic state ruled by sharia. I want everything that [Isis] wants. Their goals are my goals, there is no difference.”
Before his capture, Abdullah had been the acting “wali”, or emir of Baghdad. He stepped into the role shortly after the capture of his former boss, Abu Shaker, who, like him, is held in a high-security prison in Baghdad. Interrogations of both have led to the unravelling of much of the Isis network that had the city in its grip as violence escalated between 2011 and 2013.
Since then, Isis operatives have shown an ability to reorganise, but even during the Guardian’s visit to the prison, an enormous haul of dirt-encrusted weaponry dug up from a farm in south Baghdad was brought in by counter-terrorism police and laid in front of their base in the same compound. In a hallway leading to the officers’ rooms, images of accused terrorists at the moment of their arrest were fixed to a wall. A disabled suicide vest lay incongruously in a corner behind a
door. In the senior officer’s wardrobe trouser belts that had been filled with explosives were stored in plastic evidence bags after being seized from arrested Isis leaders. Nearby, a blindfolded, bare-footed man leaned silently against a wall, his hands cuffed in front of him.
Even now, with a death sentence looming, Abdullah viewed the people he helped to kill as legitimate targets whose deaths he could easily justify.
“Most of the people who died were valid targets and those who were caught up in the attacks will be accepted by God,” he said. “There was only one time that I had regrets. A martyr I took to the market in Qadhimeya blew himself up near
women and children and that troubled me, but the next day I was calm about it. I knew I had to be true to my ideology and I just got on with the day.”
He said his operational mission had ended with his capture and that he would use the time he had left before his almost inevitable execution to speak openly about his beliefs.
Pressed on regrets, he again became evasive. And, after another taunt from a guard, he said: “I did everything according to my beliefs. I don’t want to talk about regrets, and I don’t want to talk about my family.”
The officer responsible for the detention of the prize captive, along with half a dozen other alleged Isis leaders, said: “He’s an ideologue, but there are others here that are far more ideological than him.
“He sang like a bird on the first day. And after that, he tried to convince others to do the same. He went to talk to a guy called Abu Takseen, who is more junior than him, but Abu Takseen attacked him. That’s the people we have here.”
At the workshop, where so much of Baghdad’s carnage was planned, a man who had been Abdullah’s neighbour for more than a year said he suspected nothing about the quiet respectful man who used to greet him several times a week.
“But nothing surprises me in this city any more. Nothing,” he said. “For the rest of my life I could not be shocked by anything. That’s what living in this country does to you.”