Jill Carroll's captors weren't a run-of-the-mill kidnap-for-ransom criminal group. Nor were they just any band of insurgents. They were close allies of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Her chief captor claimed that after he abducted Ms. Carroll, he was elevated to the leadership of the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq (MSC) – the umbrella council over about half a dozen major Sunni insurgent groups – including Al Qaeda in Iraq. While both Iraqi and US officials agree that her former captor is probably the official head of MSC, they disagree over how much power he wields.
More intriguing, say some experts, is that her experience reveals a strong ideological affinity between Iraqi and foreign insurgents that contradicts news reports of a growing schism between them.
The MSC was a little-known group at the time of Carroll's Jan. 7 kidnapping. But on Jan. 15, the group was formally announced as a front for Iraqi and foreign mujahideen, or holy warriors, in an Internet statement. Abdullah Rashid al- Baghdadi – a pseudonym – was named its emir, or leader.
Shortly after that statement, Carroll was approached by her lead captor who used the nom de guerre "Abu Nour," around her. Soft-spoken and stern, he never slept in the same place as his captive. He told her that he was a scholar of Islamic law and hailed from a wealthy Baghdad family. He wore Western business suits and a spicy cologne. He went to some lengths to prevent her from getting a good look at his face, sometimes covering it with a scarf and at other times simply sitting behind her.
Usually reserved, on this day in late January he was excited and happy, almost puffed up with pride, says Carroll. But what he had to say, as he sat just outside a doorway, frightened her: In his halting but effective English, he brought up Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"He's a very good man, and he's my friend.... If you met him, you would like him so much," Abu Nour said. "But he's not the head of the mujahideen anymore.... We have something new."
He told her that most of the major jihad groups in Iraq had gotten together to form the MSC, a name Carroll had never heard before. (Indeed, the name had been used publicly in Iraq only once before, in a May 2005 propaganda video claiming the kidnapping of Australian contractor Douglas Wood. He was rescued six weeks later.) Abu Nour told her the intent was not to sideline Al Qaeda, but to put Iraqis in the titular lead of the fight against the US presence and the Shiite-led government.
"We decided we need to have an Iraqi face on this,'' he told Carroll. "The Americans are always saying that foreigners are leading the mujahideen, so people need to see an Iraqi face, and he [Mr. Zarqawi] agreed. So we decided to make Abdullah Rashid the head of this group."
Then Abu Nour dropped his bombshell. "I am Abdullah Rashid! When the editor of your newspaper finds out you spoke to Abdullah Rashid, he will be very happy."
Senior Iraqi police investigators agree that Abu Nour or Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi is the head of the MSC, and that he was once a senior officer in Saddam Hussein's air force. The Iraqi investigators refused to reveal their identities for security reasons.
A senior US military intelligence officer in Iraq says that while Carroll's kidnappers were involved with the MSC, Abdullah Rashid was exaggerating his importance to Carroll, perhaps to confuse investigators. This US officer also says, contradicting Iraqi investigators, that the group is operationally minor. The MSC "are a few guys and a dog and an Internet connection,'' he says. "Al Qaeda really drives the agenda."
Either way, the evidence indicates that Carroll spent almost three months with some of Al Qaeda's closest Iraqi allies.
The MSC proclaimed its ties to, and admiration for, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi, before and after his killing by US forces in early June. "May God accept you, Abu Musab, and join you with the martyrs and the righteous,'' reads a June 9 MSC statement signed by Abdullah Rashid.
The group has emerged as the largest disseminator of propaganda for the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. On some days, it posts dozens of Internet releases claiming attacks on US forces, and frequently follows these with videos of exploding US Humvees.
New leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq?
After Zarqawi's death, foreign intelligence services and analysts speculated that Abdullah Rashid could emerge as the terror leader's successor. That hasn't happened, which has convinced US intelligence officials in Iraq and outside analysts that the MSC is not the leader of the jihadis that it pretends to be, but is instead a largely subservient Iraqi ally of Al Qaeda.
"My understanding is that the MSC is like a front group,'' says Evan Kohlmann, an author and expert on Al Qaeda propaganda who closely tracks the MSC's public statements. "I would say that if Abdullah Rashid were really the significant leader the MSC portrays him as, then he probably would have taken over Al Qaeda from Zarqawi. Since he hasn't, that's an indication to me that he's more of a front man."
Indeed, while Abdullah Rashid presented himself as the head of the MSC, it became clear to Carroll over time, both from his comments and those of more junior captors, that he was not in complete control of the situation. References were made to waiting for the Shura Council's decisions on what to do with her.
The Arabic word "shura" implies consultation, but it seemed to Carroll that the final arbiter was Zarqawi. Late in her captivity, Carroll was told that Zarqawi had ordered the MSC not to accept a ransom for her, leaving her junior guards grumbling that that meant they'd be stuck watching her for a long time.
Jill Carroll's senior captors shared much of the worldview and objectives of Al Qaeda.
Abu Ahmed, for example, described himself as a senior planner for the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq (MSC). He was a highly educated cleric. During Ms. Carroll's captivity, he told her that he had just finished an Arabic translation of a Henry Kissinger biography and was reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," also in Arabic. Carroll came to know him while held in his book-filled house west of Fallujah. Abu Ahmed, a nom de guerre, had his own cell under Abu Nour aka Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi.
Abu Ahmed and Abu Nour told Carroll of a 20-year plan that would extend far outside Iraq, broken into three phases.
They said that the Americans would have to be driven from Iraq; then an emirate (similar to the United Arab Emirates) would be established in Iraq, but it would be governed under strict Islamic law; then they would destroy Israel and focus on a more global effort. Abu Nour expressed his hatred for existing Arab regimes, which many of the mujahideen see as the principal obstacles to bringing their strict interpretation of Islam to all Muslims.
Last October, the US military released a letter that it claimed was sent by Al Qaeda's chief strategist, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which he outlined Al Qaeda's long-term goals. Though some commentators have alleged the letter could be part of a US disinformation campaign, it tracks closely with the plan laid out by Carroll's captors.
In Mr. Zawahiri's letter, he sets out a four-step plan, its only real difference from Abu Ahmed's plan being the timing of the attack on Israel, and specifying that there would be attacks on the US and Arab governments. Zawahiri wrote that it would be tactically best to topple Arab regimes before marching on the Jewish state.
Evan Kohlmann, an expert on Al Qaeda propaganda, says that the political statements of Carroll's captors are interesting because they indicate that some powerful Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups staunchly support Zarqawi's tactics of using suicide bombings, targeting Shiite civilians, and launching terror attacks beyond Iraq's borders.
"It's not just Al Qaeda and it's not just foreign fighters" who support terrorist attacks on civilians, says Mr. Kohlmann. "It's Iraqis, too, who are doing it, and that's a big problem."
US government officials frequently portray Al Qaeda-style terrorist attacks as mostly a foreign import in Iraq, and a number of newspapers have reported that even Iraqi insurgents have turned on those who adopt such tactics.
But Carroll's account and Kohlmann's own research have convinced him that many Iraqi insurgents are backing the most extreme tactics, and he sees little evidence that the operational freedom of such groups has been undermined by Sunni sheikhs such as Osama al-Jadaan, who claimed to have Al Qaeda on the run in Anbar Province.
In February, Mr. Jadaan publicly threatened Carroll's captors with death if she wasn't released unharmed. He was murdered in Baghdad last May. A few days later, the MSC claimed responsibility for his death.