Saja al-Dulaimi, a young Iraqi widow, was married to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his second wife. In a short interview (watch the video below), she describes al-Baghdadi, who was a university professor, as a somewhat normal family man. According to her, he did not take part in the “resistance” against the Americans when she was married to her and denies knowing anything about his past before marrying him. Yet she describes their marriage as odd, because they did not talk like husbands and wives because of his “mysterious” personality. She decided to leave after finding out she was pregnant. After having her daughter, she was arrested and put in a Lebanese prison, but was just recently released in a prisoner exchange.
Now remarried to a Palestinian man, she wants to not be viewed as a terrorist and wants more than anything the chance for her children to be educated in a Western country away from the Middle East. Leaving the Middle East will also separate her and her family as much as possible from al-Baghdadi, necessary given her fear that he might send someone to kidnap their daughter.
Background and analysis
Al-Dulaimi makes it sound like this was just simply a very short and unsuccessful arranged marriage, nothing more. However, the video seems to contradict what we know about her, her family, and al-Baghdadi. She downplays her role as his wife or potential ISIS supporter.
What is the truth? Is she a victim of a hastily arranged marriage, or a former supporter of al-Baghdadi? Was she truthful when she claimed the dynamics of her role as a second wife were strained to the point that they limited her verbal interactions with her husband, therefore limiting her knowledge of his life outside of the house? Generally, the younger wives are more revered by the husband than the first wives, even if the first wives generally have more power within the household.
Were the dynamics so out of balance that they drove her out? She comes from a more religious conservative Salafist family, so for her to leave her husband and divorce him does not seem to fit that profile, especially due to the political ties that her marriage created for her tribe. There is more to the story than what she is telling in the interview. She left out the most important part: her tribe and her family.
Her father, Ibrahim al-Dulaimi, was known to have been a follower of AQI’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and later became an ISIS commander (her father died in 2013), so her affiliation and close family link is already there. Her sister, Ducaa, was a suicide bomber in Erbil. Her brother is also tied to bombings in southern Iraq, and is possibly facing execution charges. With her family’s connections to AQI and later ISIS, her claim that her father married her off to a “normal family man” college professor with no connection to terrorism does not fit. Also, with her family’s relationship to al-Zarqawi and AQI, how could she not know that al-Baghdadi was just released as a detainee in American custody before her marriage?
Their marriage was a strategically arranged marriage that linked al-Baghdadi to the Dulaim tribe, which fell out of power after the U.S invasion in 2003 (the tribe reportedly made up 10-12 percent of Saddam’s army). This new tribal linkage would help al-Baghdadi advance his political career within AQI and eventually ISIS. Political and tribal marriages are very common.
If Saja and her daughter remain in the Middle East, they might be in danger due to the potential knowledge Saja may have on al-Baghdadi. Both could be very valuable to one of al-Baghdadi’s competitors for either information, ransom, or another prisoner exchange like the one she was just involved in. The photographs of her prison release let the world know where she was and what she looked like. This video could have been her attempt to give the perception that her marriage was so short and insignificant that she was never a threat and has no valuable information.
Perhaps the U.S. or another country could strike up a deal for asylum in exchange for some valuable information about al-Baghdadi. Although, they probably had an opportunity to question her while she was in prison. No matter how hard she tries to distance herself, she will always be tied to him and have ties to terrorism due to her family’s heavy involvement.
Video courtesy of Expressen TV
Atwan, A. B. (2015). A Portrait of Caliph Ibrahim. The Cairo Review of Global Affairs (19), 67-75.
Moubayed, S. (2015). Under the Black Flag: At the New Frontier of the New Jihad. London: I.B. Tauris.