Lebanon News

Baghdadi’s wife or not, Dulaimi’s capture is boon for Lebanon

This file image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014 shows the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. (AP Photo/Militant video)

BEIRUT: Unanswered questions and rumors swirled Tuesday about the identity of a woman and child detained by Lebanese security forces 10 days earlier, with some reports insisting she was one of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s wives and others saying her background was not yet clear.

But whether Saja Hamid al-Dulaimi is (or was) married to Baghdadi or not, analysts agreed that her capture would strengthen Lebanon’s hand in its struggle to secure the release of around 26 security personnel kidnapped by ISIS and the Nusra Front during fighting in the northeastern town of Arsal in August.

Dulaimi first drew international attention back in March when she was reported to be one of around 50 women released from prison by the Syrian government in return for the Nusra Front’s release of 13 nuns captured in the Christian Syrian town of Maaloula. At the time, she was reported to be Baghdadi’s wife due to comments by a Nusra Front commander, and several months later, pictures of a brown-eyed woman in a black headscarf emerged on the Internet purporting to be of the ISIS leader’s bride.

“Despite this being the same name as a woman released in exchange for the nuns in Maaloula in March, it is still to this day impossible to confirm that she is indeed Baghdadi’s wife,” Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Daily Star.

“There has been some speculation that she may be an ‘ex-wife’ or possibly even the wife of a Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front] commander and therefore nothing to do with ISIS at all,” he added. “While some additional information points to her being from Baghdadi’s hometown of Samarrah, this again is insufficient evidence.”

The news emerged after an article in As-Safir newspaper Tuesday claimed that the Army had detained Baghdadi’s wife and son, and the report was quickly picked up by international news organizations from Reuters to BBC. However, while security sources have confirmed Dulaimi’s arrest, no concrete proof has been offered about her affiliations, and there were contradictory reports about the sex of the child she was with.

There was no Army statement or any other official word on the matter. The Army spokesperson could not be reached by The Daily Star.

According to Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Center, Dulaimi is Baghdadi’s second wife, but has been estranged from the militant leader for some time.

“This lady, for the past two years, was cut off from having any relations with ISIS – and more importantly was cut off from Baghdadi,” he said, adding that it was unclear whether they divorced or whether she left him.

Further, the militant group prohibits its members from sharing information even with direct family members, he said, meaning that it was highly unlikely her arrest would yield any intelligence that would undermine the militant group.

Dulaimi could instead provide useful intelligence to Lebanese authorities about the – possibly Nusra Front-linked – people who were around her, Abou Zeid said.

But her greatest value, he said, was as a bargaining chip for the Lebanese government in its hostage negotiations with militants in the outskirts of Arsal, largely because she still maintains close relations with the Nusra Front.

Before they split in February this year, ISIS and the Nusra Front both had close links to Al-Qaeda and were effectively part of the same organization. It is likely that her links to both groups, if true, date back to this previous alliance.

“She is a close family member of several Nusra Front leaders,” Abou Zeid said, adding that for the March Maaloula nun swap, “the Nusra Front put in a lot of effort to liberate her.”

And it appears that General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who is in charge of the hostage file, is well aware of her potential to shift the negotiations in Lebanon’s favor after four months of little to no progress.

“When Ibrahim took the lead in the negotiations, he said he needed to use all his cards,” Abou Zeid said. “One of the cards was this lady [Dulaimi].”

“That the information [that Dulaimi was arrested] was leaked to the media is a clear indication how General Security is using the lady as a tactic in the negotiations.”

On this point, at least, Lister agrees. “If this is Baghdadi’s wife and daughter, it would of course represent a very significant development, particularly considering the potential value of such an individual in prisoner exchanges,” he said.

“Prisoner exchanges are not exactly anything new within the Syrian context and all previous efforts to free the Lebanese soldiers – mostly though Qatari intermediaries – have totally failed,” he added. “For the Lebanese to get their hands on a truly valuable prisoner seems the only hope now for a successful release, but I’d remain skeptical for now regarding the claim that this is Baghdadi’s wife.”

For political risk analyst Elijah Magnier, whether she is Baghdadi’s wife, ex-wife, or no relation, her clear importance means “she is already part of any future deal to release the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] hostages.”

“Today, the hostages have more chance to be part of a global deal that includes Saja [Dulaimi] and her children,” he added. “These jihadists pay particular attention to freeing prisoners, mainly women.”

Not everyone was convinced that Dulaimi’s capture was a guarantee of good things to come, however.

“It’s possible that this claimed capture of Baghdadi’s wife and child could constitute ‘leverage’ of sorts against ISIS – and ISIS is not opposed in principle to prisoner exchanges,” said Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“I have my doubts, however, about whether the Lebanese government is reading ISIS correctly. Are these individuals of such high value to ISIS that they would be willing to trade for them? Or will ISIS simply portray this as a violation of a woman’s honor and sanctity of a child, and indeed escalate in response? I lean toward the latter viewpoint.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 03, 2014, on page 3.

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