Bride of ISIS – the ultimate female jihadist icon
Published by The Mail on Sunday (22nd February, 2015)
For radicalised Muslim women in Britain and beyond who seek to marry into the blood-stained ranks of Islamic State, Saja al-Dulaimi is the ultimate icon. She is the striking former wife of the supreme IS leader and mother of his child; a smuggler of gold chains worth hundreds of thousands of pounds – hidden under her burka – to finance the IS’s murderous schemes, and a figure so senior she was once central to a high-value prisoner exchange.
And now, along with her daughter by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, she has special martyr status. Her home is a cell in the grim Yarze jail, one of the most feared prisons in the Middle East, a military detention centre in Beirut notorious for its dungeons and systematic use of torture.
Described by one Lebanese general as a ‘fabulous beauty behind her veil’, the defiant prisoner in her early 30s is barred from receiving visitors. Heavily armed female soldiers on the all-women wing pace the corridors outside as they keep watch over their prized captive.
Dulaimi was caught late last year close to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast with the couple’s daughter after an American tip-off to Lebanese authorities. She was using false papers and smuggling huge sums of gold under her Islamic dress to fund the murderous activities of militants.
Despite weeks of intensive questioning, however, she has said almost nothing and, astonishingly, her daughter Hajaa, thought to be only ten years old, has also refused to crack. To the dismay of local and Western intelligence agencies, neither has given any significant information; reports concluded both are ‘well-trained’ to withstand interrogations.
Yet, slowly, security teams are piecing together a hazy picture of a mysterious woman connected by family and three marriages to some of the world’s most deadly firebrands. ‘One day they’ll make a movie about her,’ concluded an observer.
Certainly this independent and beguiling woman must have stood out in the sinister world of Islamic fanatics as she flitted around Middle Eastern countries using false names – such a contrast with conventional jihadi imagery of docile women hidden away in homes.
One analyst concluded her exploits on behalf of the extremists marked her out as an ‘honorary jihadi man’; another even called her ‘a bit of a superstar’. Such is the secrecy swirling around Baghdadi and his ex-wife, there are few precise details known about their relationship.
Baghdadi is thought to have had three wives, although Dulaimi is the only one ever seen in public. Yet she refused to confirm their marriage under interrogation in prison, sometimes responding in an aggressive or rude manner to questions. She even told one senior officer her husband was dead.
Lebanese security sources say they wed six years ago in Syria, staying together for only three months. Their union would have come after Baghdadi was freed by the Americans, who held him for three years in the aftermath of their ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Having been radicalised in prison, Baghdadi became head of the group now known as IS within a year of his release. DNA tests using samples taken during his detention confirm Hajaa is the daughter of the self-styled successor to the Prophet Mohammed.
Yet one senior Iraqi government source said there was evidence the couple married in 2005 – which would fit with the age of their child – and remained formally wed until two years ago.
‘Everyone is very tight-lipped about her,’ said Abdel Bari Atwan, author of Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. ‘The problem is that these ultra-orthodox Islamists do not like to talk about their wives, and when it comes to Baghdadi there is little known about his wives or children.’
Dulaimi had previously been married to another Iraqi militant leader named Fallah Ismail Jassem, with whom she had her first child. He was gunned down by Iraqi troops five years ago.
Iraqi sources believe Dulaimi spent time in the Lebanese port of Tripoli last year before moving to Arsal, a turbulent mountain town on the border, swollen by tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Syria.
During her months there, she frequently crossed the border wearing gold chains worth up to £25,000 hidden by wearing full hijab, knowing male border guards would not search her, then sold to provide funds for fighters.
Lebanese security sources say she was so successful she is ‘implicated’ in providing several hundred thousand pounds to rebels from Al Nusra – an Al Qaeda affiliate group – in the Syrian border regions.
She was caught in mid-November near the Lebanese fishing village of El Berbara, with papers claiming to be a Syrian called Mallak Abdullah and two other sets of false documents.
She was in the early stages of pregnancy after hooking up with her latest husband, a Libyan or Palestinian militant from another extremist Sunni group who has been arrested on charges of assisting Dulaimi in funding terrorism.
One intelligence source, asked what she had revealed, replied: ‘Only the devil knows.
‘My colleagues believe her CV, obtained by Lebanese security, is fraught with false confessions to avoid giving damaging leads.’
Such is the confusion, Iraqi officials have even claimed she is not Baghdadi’s wife but the sister of a senior Al Qaeda commander awaiting execution in their country.
Dulaimi’s importance to IS first became apparent amid negotiations early last year to swap 150 women and children held by the Syrian government for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns, kidnapped by Islamist rebels.
During tense discussions, negotiators from Al Nusra insisted a woman identified as Saja Khalaf must be among those freed, even postponing the deal several times until this was agreed. ‘The negotiators said she was very important,’ disclosed one security source. ‘They were ready to cancel the deal for her sake.’
The group was finally released in March, ‘Khalaf’ walking out with dainty handbag hanging from her arm and her two children alongside her. When a local official touched her, an Al Nusra operative screamed: ‘Keep your hands away from that woman – no one touches her.’
Days later, it emerged why she was seen as so special. First, a leading local jihadi cryptically tweeted: ‘If only you knew, my brother, who was released in the negotiations, you would have cried a bit and laughed a lot.’ Then, an Al Nusra emir tweeted the truth: ‘Our sister, the wife of Sheik Abu Bakr, God bless him, was freed by us. We did this because it’s our duty.’
Incredibly, the shaky Syrian regime had released the former wife of IS’s leader – a person of immense symbolic and strategic significance to the barbaric group.
Now she is a possible pawn again in hostage negotiations, this time over the release of 25 Lebanese security personnel threatened with execution by IS and Al Nusra after being seized last August. A Lebanese Salafist attempting to mediate their release claimed to have received a letter from IS demanding Dulaimi’s release in return for those kidnapped.
However, if she does end up dying for her twisted cause, Dulaimi would be far from the first member of her extraordinarily-militant family to meet a bloody end.
Her father was a high-ranking jihadist who may have arranged her marriage to seal an alliance with Baghdadi as the self-proclaimed caliph began his rise to power. He was reportedly killed in September while fighting against the Syrians.
She has three brothers, all thought to be militants fighting in Syria and Iraq. One is said to have been caught and sentenced to death for a bombing in Basra. Her sisters include one reported to have died in a suicide attack, while a second was arrested with 13lb of explosives wrapped around her body in the Kurdish city of Irbil, northern Iraq.
This is indeed an extraordinary life story that seems like a film script. But sadly it would be for the darkest and most blood-drenched of stories, starring a deadly woman playing a key role in the horrific events ripping apart the Middle East.
* This article was written with Martin Jay in Beirut