Lebanese officials released the ex-wife of the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State on Tuesday in exchange for 16 Lebanese soldiers and a policeman captured by Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Qatar brokered the trade and American national security officials were befuddled by it.
Saja al-Dulaimi, who is believed to be in her 30s, was one of 13 Islamists released as part of the trade. Wearing a silver hijab with gold butterflies that covered her hair and face, al-Dulaimi said in a brief interview after her handover that she may have been briefly married to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seven years but wasn’t really sure because there was no ISIS then.
It was the first footage ever captured of her. Before all that existed was one photo.
In an interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera, al-Dulaimi said, “My brother works for al-Nusra and they say that I am the ex-wife of al-Baghdadi. [It’s] what I heard, but I don’t know. I divorced my husband seven years ago. I don’t know if he is al-Baghdadi or not.”
Al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi national, reportedly met al-Baghdadi online and their marriage lasted only a few months. But she remained a part of the jihadist movement. A Lebanese official described reportedly described her as a “fabulous beauty behind her veil” but her biography and ideological sympathies remain just as inscrutable. She apparently said little about her terror activity despite intense questioning by Lebanese officials during her year in Yarze Prison, one of the region’s more notorious jails.
Her lawyer said Tuesday that al-Dulaimi was “not as hefty a catch” as she appeared, politically speaking, although he added that she was willing to cooperate with authorities.
As confused as the thrice-married al-Dulaimi was about her world-famous ex-husband, many could not understand why al Nusra would give up its high-valued prisoners in exchange for a onetime powerful asset to a rival jihadist group. Al-Baghdadi dispatched one of his lieutenants to found al Nusra in late 2011, though tensions with al Qaeda’s high command led to a violent rupture between that organization and ISIS in early 2014.
So did al Nusra ask for al-Dulaimi in hopes of securing al Qaeda prisoners held by ISIS in future negotiations? Was she in fact a “hefty catch” for the franchise given that she’s the sister of a prominent al Nusra member? (Last year, a report emerged suggesting that her father was also an active member of the group.) Or was the swap a show of conciliation, the better to broker a peace deal or battlefield truce with ISIS at the local level?
“Nusra prioritizes getting women out of prison because, in part, it generates local support in Syria,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
The others released along with al-Dulaimi could be more valuable if it turns out they are part of a ring of car bombing attacks suspected of attacks across Lebanon, Cafarella noted.
U.S. officials simply had no clue about the prisoner exchange, which bypassed Washington completely and solidified Qatar, a U.S. ally and the Middle Eastern host of U.S. Central Command, as Syrian al Qaeda’s chief interlocutor.
Indeed, it’s not the first time that Doha has played hostage negotiator with Syria’s al Qaeda branch. In March 2014, Qatari officials arranged for the release of a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns captured by Nusra in the ancient city of Maaloula, where Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic is still spoken. Originally, according to other rebels familiar with the negotiation, Qatar had intended to pay a ransom for the hostages, but al Nusra’s asking price of $50 million was deemed too steep for the tiny gas-rich Gulf state, and so in the end the nuns were swapped for 150 Syrian women who had been detained by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Qatar was also widely thought to have played a similar role following al Nusra’s abduction of 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers who’d been taken from their outpost in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in August 2014.
Al-Nusra Front captured the Lebanese troops 16 months ago in the Lebanese border town of Arsal, where they were also released. ISIS reportedly captured another nine at the same attack. Their fate is unknown.
As for al-Dulaimi, Lebanese authorities caught her a year ago, along with her two sons and a daughter—all believed to be Baghdadi’s—at a border crossing. She was suspected of transferring money to militants. She was also pregnant at the time with another child, this one presumably by her new husband, a Palestinian, and gave birth to her third son in prison.
— With additional reporting from Michael Weiss