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Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces vehicle in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014. Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces vehicle in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces vehicle in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014.

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 6, 2014

Actor James Woods: Obama ordered the release of Islamic State leader

When James Woods isn't busy acting and doing voiceovers for video games and Family Guy episodes, he tweets from the right-end of the political spectrum. One of his latest messages revives the inaccurate claim that President Barack Obama let the head of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) slip through our fingers in 2009.

ISIS, which has simplified its name to Islamic State, is the well-armed Sunni force that has claimed broad swaths of land in Iraq. Recently, it defeated seasoned, if ill-equipped, Kurdish forces in battles for two key towns.

On Aug. 5, Woods, no fan of Obama, tweeted to his 145,000 followers, "The leader of ISIS was imprisoned by American troops and ordered released to Iraq by Obama administration in 2009."

Woods followed that up with, "Clearly Obama did not hand select the leader of ISIS for release to the Iraqis in 2009. Obama's weak kneed foreign policy is the issue."

We looked at an almost identical claim about the head of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June.

Baghdadi was held by U.S. forces at a detention facility in Iraq called Camp Bucca, but not when Woods said. According to the Defense Department, Baghdadi was released in 2004, not 2009.

"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 told us 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."

In short, according to the Defense Department, the man who heads Islamic State was set free in 2004, long before Obama took office, and he was not recaptured.

How did the 2009 version get started?

In mid June, there were several articles -- from Slate, and NBC among others --  that placed Baghdadi at Camp Bucca in 2009 (when Obama would have been president). However, all the talk tracked back to a Daily Beast interview with Army Col. Kenneth King, the former commander of Camp Bucca. That article said King knew Baghdadi at the camp and that he didn’t expect to see him become the leader of a spectacularly vicious and brutal movement.

"I'm not surprised that it was someone who spent time in Bucca but I'm a little surprised it was him," King said. "He was a bad dude, but he wasn't the worst of the worst."

In this storyline, Baghdadi was handed over to Iraqi justice system late in 2009 shortly before Camp Bucca closed.

ABC News questioned King’s recollection, citing a "a U.S. official" that Baghdadi was not in American custody in 2009.

"I could be mistaken," King told ABC News, "but I’m 99 percent. He’s a dead ringer for the guy I had the run-in with … His face is very familiar."

King declined to comment to PunditFact.

For the record, even if King's memory is better than the Defense Department's paper trail, Obama didn’t order Baghdadi released as much as enforce an agreement brokered by President George W. Bush. Before Bush left office, his administration signed a contract between the United States and Iraq that guaranteed that the United States would give up custody of virtually every detainee.

Our ruling

Woods said Obama ordered the release of the leader of ISIS, now called Islamic State, in 2009. The Defense Department says the release took place in 2004 and Obama had nothing to do with it.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

James Woods, tweet, Aug. 5, 2014

PunditFact, Fox's Pirro: Obama set ISIS leader free in 2009, June 19, 2014

Washington Post, Islamic State seizes town of Sinjar, pushing out Kurds and sending Yazidis fleeing, Aug. 3, 2014

The Daily Beast, ISIS Leader: ‘See You in New York’, June 14, 2014

Fox News, The Kelly File, June 13, 2014

ABC News, ISIS Leader’s Ominous New York Message in Doubt, But US Still on Edge, June 16, 2014

NBC News, The Secret Life of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, June 16, 2014

Slate, Who Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?, June 16, 2014

Aljazeera, The fierce ambition of ISIL's Baghdadi, June 15, 2014

Red State, Obama’s terrorist catch-and-release program is a success, June 12, 2014

Independent Journalism Review, Meet the Terrorist Leader of ISIS Released Under President Obama Who is Now Rampaging Across Iraq, June 16, 2014

Email interview, Department of Defense, June 19, 2014

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More by Jon Greenberg

Actor James Woods: Obama ordered the release of Islamic State leader

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