Setting the record straight: When did the U.S. free Islamic State leader?

An image from a video posted on a militant website purports to be of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group. (AP)
An image from a video posted on a militant website purports to be of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group. (AP)

There is no doubting that the man leading ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was once in American custody.

The question is: When did the United States let him go?

Some news organizations, politicians and pundits have said al-Baghdadi was released from U.S. custody in Iraq by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009. And on his way out, al-Baghdadi made a haunting claim: "I’ll see you guys in New York."

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Others, including the Pentagon, say American forces held al-Baghdadi for about a year and set him free in 2004. In this version of the story, there is no threat of retaliation in New York and the president at the time was George W. Bush.

Which side is right matters in the world of punditry.

Those who said al-Baghdadi was released by Obama in 2009 included Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, some leading newspapers and a spate of conservative pundits. For some, it fit into what pundits described as Obama’s "catch and release policy" for terrorists. The line of thinking gained traction in June when the administration handed over five Taliban prisoners in a swap that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The conservative website RedState said that deal revealed a running theme in the Obama administration.

"The leader of the ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group that is rampaging through Sunni Iraq, was released from U.S. custody in 2009," went a post on the site. "What else happened in 2009? An obscure, left wing radical from Chicago with an implacable hatred of American power became president."

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that narrative is incorrect.

The latest evidence: Fresh information comes from an ISIS commander who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed. In an article two years in the making by Guardian reporter Martin Chulov, Abu Ahmed talked about meeting al-Baghdadi at Camp Bucca, the sprawling American detention center set up in the early days of the Iraq occupation.

The year was 2004, and Abu Ahmed said in many ways, al-Baghdadi flew below the radar screen.

"Baghdadi was a quiet person," said Abu Ahmed. "He was respected very much by the U.S. Army. If he wanted to visit people in another camp (one of the compounds within Camp Bucca) he could, but we couldn’t."

Chulov wrote that officials, seeing nothing of concern with al-Baghdadi, authorized his release in December 2004.

We asked Chulov if there could be any mistake. Was Abu Ahmed truly in a position to know what happened to al-Baghdadi.

"There is no dispute within Jihadi circles that Baghdadi was released late ‘04, perhaps early ‘05," Chulov told PunditFact. "Abu Ahmed has had access throughout the past decade and knows with precision what his movements have been."

Chulov went on to say that this release date is stated as fact by "the CIA, the Defense Department and the entire Iraqi security establishment."

When PunditFact first explored this issue in June 2014, the Pentagon said its records were clear.

"Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Al Badry, also known as ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’ was held as a ‘civilian internee’ by U.S. Forces-Iraq from early February 2004 until early December 2004, when he was released," the Pentagon said in a statement. "He was held at Camp Bucca. A Combined Review and Release Board recommended ‘unconditional release’ of this detainee and he was released from U.S. custody shortly thereafter. We have no record of him being held at any other time."

The data on the other side

So where’s 2009 coming from?

Britain’s Telegraph was the first paper we found saying that al-Baghdadi got out in 2009. For proof, it cited analyst Michael Knights at the Washington Center for Near East Policy and an unnamed Pentagon document. But both seemed to be talking about a different terrorist called Abu Duaa. The Telegraph treated that as another nom de guerre for al-Baghdadi.

Given that the Telegraph quoted a former British special forces commander saying "(We) arrested or killed a man of that name about half a dozen times," it is possible that the newspaper had accurate information about the wrong terrorist.

The Daily Beast published an article based on an interview with Army Col. Kenneth King, the former commander of Camp Bucca. That article said King knew al-Baghdadi at the camp. King is the source for al-al-Baghdadi’s line about New York.

King said he recognized al-Baghdadi from photos in the news. At the Pentagon’s request, King has stopped talking about what he does and doesn’t remember. He told ABC News that he might have been mistaken.