Camp Bucca: Iraq's militant university

Camp Bucca: Iraq's militant university
Feature: One of Iraq's most notorious prisons, the US-run Camp Bucca, became a factory for hardened fighters - who now make up the Islamic State group's leadership.
5 min read
Former inmates say that torture was routine in the camp [AFP]

Lying beside the idyllic waterway of the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq's Camp Bucca has been described as one of the most brutal US prisons anywhere in the world. The detention facility was maintained by the US military in Basra province, and housed some of Iraq's most dangerous prisoners.

Yasir Abdallah, known by his prisoner number 11509 during his time as an inmate, says that, despite the brutality of guards, he took one lesson away with him from Camp Bucca.

"It was a school, no - a university. It showed me the naked truth and the hypocrisy of the West," he says. "We spent the best days of our lives there, despite the misery. It was two years filled with self-discovery."

The torture he says he experienced in the detention centre turned him into a hardened man. Abdallah spent his time under the tutelage of sheikhs with with whom he was locked up, and learnt about the Quran, hadiths and a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The British army constructed the camp at the start of the occupation of Iraq, before London and Washington carved up control of the country between them.

Originally it was called Camp Freddy, until it was handed over to the US navy in December 2003. It was then transformed into a huge 40 sq km detention centre. It was renamed Camp Bucca after Ronald Bucca, a fire department marshal and former soldier who was killed in the September 11 attacks.

Militant masterminds

Practically all of the leadership of Iraq's most extreme militant groups passed through Camp Bucca. Their names and pictures now make the front pages of newspapers around the world: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), attended the "university", along with Adnan al-Bilawi, Abu Muslim al-Kharasani, Fadel al-Hayali, Mohammad al-Iraqi, Mohammad Abd al-Aziz al-Shammari and Khalid al-Samarrai.

The first detainees in the prison were the heads of Saddam Hussein's power base - army officers, intelligence chiefs, scientists from the Tamouz nuclear reactor, and other prominent members of the Baath Party.

When the insurgency against US forces in Iraq gathered pace, more of the prisoners came from the ranks of the resistance, or even vocal opponents of the occupation.

     "The student has become smarter than his teacher. Just look at al-Qaeda in comparison to its offshoot, IS.
- Hussain al-Basri, Sadr Movement

A few months later and the first batch of Salafi inmates entered the prison. They soon opened Iraq's "first" jihadi school inside the camp.

Breeding ground

Camp Bucca held more than 24,000 inmates - mostly Sunni - on terrorism charges. Here, they were reportedly subjected to systematic torture, so brutal in some cases that the torture proved fatal.

The father of a senior IS member, Khalid al-Samarrai, died under torture. The fighter's mother and daughter were reportedly killed during a US raid on his family home - troops were trying to find Samarrai's brother. His fate remains unknown.

Part of the reason that Camp Bucca became the birthplace of Iraqi jihadi ideology was the way inmates were grouped together. Arab nationalist fighters were put in cells with "takfiri" ideologues.

Add torture, cruel treatment, and humiliating conditions into the mix, and it pushed even the most secular and patriotic of fighters into the hands of the jihadis.

At one point in the detention centre, dozens of prisoners were said to have been murdered by fellow inmates for apostasy and "breaching the faith". A clandestine Sharia court was set up by prisoners who meted out the sentences handed down.

After a female US guard was understood to have destroyed a copy of the Quran, a riot erupted in the camp - leaving five more prisoners dead. 

A starting point

Hussain al-Basri, leader of the Sadrist Movement, says that Camp Bucca became a nerve centre for parts of the insurgency in Iraq, and that it became a symbol of US injustice and torture. He isn't surprised that the detention centre fostered a spirit of extremism and violence.

"What do you expect from people whose country has been taken over and robbed by foreigners, who were then arrested and tortured for objecting and denouncing the occupation? For them to get out and sit around? Of course not," he said.

It is unsuprising, he says, that the prisoners were radicalised under such conditions, when jihadi gangs offered them a chance of dignity and self-respect.

However, Basri also believes that the brutality of the prison pushed some too far.

As the leader of a Shia organisation that was involved in a brutal civil war with Sunnis in Iraq, Basri says that he wishes his enemy were still led by the jihadi "teachers" of the prison, rather than its "pupils".

"The student has become smarter than his teacher. Just look at al-Qaeda in comparison to its offshoot, IS," he says.

Packed in like sardines

Ahmad al-Rubaie, an expert on Iraqi militant groups, says that dozens of the Islamic State group's leaders spent time in the camp.

"Interestingly, some of these people were the biggest opponents of al-Qaeda and its counterparts, and were advocates of Iraqi and Arab nationalism - but when they were released they became jihadi takfiri sheikhs," he says.

Hamid al-Saadi was a member of the prisoners' affairs committee between February 2005 and September 2007.

"The Americans knew the prisoners in Bucca would get out to plant IEDs again and get back at anything and everything in their way," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Despite the pleas of the committee, these hardened prisoners were released during the final week of the US occupation.

     Many of them went in nationalists and came out Islamists. - Hamid al-Saadi

"They told us the military court had released them and all we have to do is re-arrest them and try them again in the Iraqi courts," he says. 

"Mujahideen and suicide bombers were living in cells that were like tins of sardines, then released. That's what Bucca prison was, many of them went in nationalists and came out Islamists."

Ashes to ashes

Camp Bucca was finally demolished yesterday by the Basra authorities. The land is to be used to build 40,000 low-cost apartments for the victims of terrorist attacks.

Abdallah, the former Bucca inmate, is not nostalgic about the camp's demolition.

"To ashes with the prison. It held tens of thousands of Iraqis who were reborn intellectually by its oppression and torture," he says. 

"IS was born here and others will be born from it, if the executioners do not end their passion for torturing people already suffering from living under their oppressive rule."   

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.