Two U.S. officials today cast doubt on the claim that the leader of the Iraqi terror group marching towards Baghdad had ever told his old American captors that he would "see [them] in New York," since, the official said, the militant wasn't in custody at the time the exchange allegedly took place.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri and is also known as Abu Du'a, was detained by the American military in 2004. Over the past few days, it was reported that al-Baghdadi was released in 2009 and returned to the battlefield with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), eventually rising to leader of the terror group in 2010. The group then split off from al Qaeda in early 2014 and al-Baghdadi renamed it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
As he was released from American custody in 2009, an American commander at Camp Bucca, where al-Baghdadi was being held, said the militant offered what he took then to be a joke - words that now seem much more ominous as his powerful group menaces the Iraqi capital.
"He said, 'I'll see you guys in New York,'" Army Col. Kenneth King told Fox News Friday. King related the story to The Daily Beast and CNN as well, but said that at the time, he didn't take the comment as foreshadowing of an attack on the American metropolis, but just as a joke considering al-Baghdadi knew that many of his guards were members of the New York police and fire departments.
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However, a U.S. official told ABC News today that al-Baghdadi was not in American custody in 2009 when King says he made the comment. The official, familiar with intelligence relating to al-Baghdadi, said he did not know exactly when the future terror leader was released from custody, but by 2006, he had "resumed his activities." Since then, the official said, al-Baghdadi has been "active with the group [ISIS]." Another U.S. official confirmed the general timeline discrepancy. Both American officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"I could be mistaken," King told ABC News when asked about the timing issue, "but I'm 99 percent. He's a dead ringer for the guy I had the run-in with... His face is very familiar."
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King said that he first believed it was al-Baghdadi he had spoken with all those years past when he saw al-Baghdadi's photo a week ago during coverage of the Iraq crisis. King said he took over as commander of the detention center in December 2008 and the man he believed to be al-Baghdadi was already there.
"I know my detainees as well as my guards," King said.
Regardless of whether al-Baghdadi specifically threatened New York, the ISIS leader has directed his wrath towards the U.S. before, saying in an audio message in January that America will "very soon... be in the direct confrontation."
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who played an integral part in tracking down al-Baghdadi's predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said that if al-Baghdadi does "set his sights" on attacking the West, it would mean a big problem.
"[But] I think it remains to be seen what type of threat he means to the homeland," Bakos told ABC News.
U.S. officials are already concerned about the threat posed to the American Embassy in Baghdad, where a contingent of U.S. Marines is heading to provide additional protection. Top American intelligence and law enforcement officials have also expressed deep concern about Americans and Europeans who have traveled to Syria to join groups like ISIS, who could potentially return to use their deadly skills to attack the homeland.
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"When you look at the terrorist training ground operations in Syria and Iraq, I believe it is one of the biggest threats," Rep. Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC News' "This Week" Sunday.
Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told ABC News that ISIS is "obviously a concern," but the group has more pressing matters on its mind right now.
"I think it's fair to say ISIS... would first concentrate on survival and also consolidating their gains," said Kelly, who is a consultant for ABC News. "But I think it's reasonable for us to think about an extended threat to the country... What we don't need is another sanctuary where plans can be developed to attack the U.S."
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