Iraqi officials released a video on Friday of a recently captured senior ISIS member confessing to involvement in a notorious incident in which caged Kurdish fighters were paraded through a northern Iraqi town.
Published in early 2015, shortly after ISIS burned alive a downed Jordanian pilot, the video sparked widespread rage and fear among the Kurds, marking a nadir in their war against the group.
As the ISIS "governor" of Kirkuk province at the time, Jamal Al Mashadani said in his confession that he was responsible for the incident. Known by his nom de guerre Abu Hamza Al Kurdi, Al Mashadani was also involved in the group's chemical weapons programme.
The ISIS video showed about 20 Kurdish prisoners in orange jumpsuits placed in metal cages and driven through Hawija's central market in pickup trucks. The video included footage of previous ISIS executions, including the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al Kassabah in a cage, making clear the threat to murder the Kurdish prisoners in a similarly gruesome fashion.
In the video released by Iraq’s National Intelligence Service on Friday, it was Al Mashadani’s turn to wear a prison uniform. A burly man with a grizzled beard, he said the parading of the prisoners aimed to lift the morale of ISIS supporters. It was not clear whether his confession was coerced or given freely.
Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council described Al Mashadani as “one of the most prominent terrorists” in ISIS, and he remains one of a relatively small number of senior members to be captured alive.
Born in Tarmiyah north of Baghdad in 1973, Al Mashadani once served as an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein. He graduated from Iraq’s National Security College in 1992 and joined the country’s military intelligence, according to his confession.
After the US invasion in 2003, Al Mashadani joined Al Qaeda in Iraq. Like ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, Al Mashadani was at one point captured by the Americans. According to his confession, he was held at Camp Cropper from 2006 until mid-2011.
After his release, Al Mashadani progressed to become a high-ranking but little-known ISIS leader, according to Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at Washington DC-based think tank The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Al Mashadani’s technical and organisational expertise was critical to the group, Mr Hassan said.
"He's one of the real professionals and brains who built ISIS, the faces not usually recognised in discussions about the group," Mr Hassan told The New York Times, which was able to verify much of Al Mashadani's biography from US officials.
Al Mashadani was involved in the operation which captured the Kurdish soldiers during a night attack south of the city of Kirkuk in early 2015. None of the captured fighters were ever released. According to Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, the bodies of three of the fighters were eventually discovered in mass graves around Hawija after it was liberated from ISIS, while the fate of the rest is not known.
The incident cast such a pall over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the winter of 2015 that official celebrations for the spring festival of Newroz were cancelled. “Newroz is a day that under the most difficult circumstances in the past has been celebrated in one way or another,” Kurdish government spokesman Safeen Dizayee said at the time. “But because of the war with ISIS and the people who have been killed or wounded, the government is not having any official celebration.”
Another high-profile incident to which Al Mashadani confessed was his involvement was the March 2016 chemical attack on the town of Taza, south of Kirkuk. ISIS fired about 40 rockets containing chemical agents on the predominantly Turkmen Shiite town. A young girl was killed and 800 civilians affected by exposure to gas, suspected to be chlorine and mustard.
That attack came in the same month as the 28th anniversary of Hussein’s 1988 chemical bombardment which killed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja. "It's the same guys," Najat Hussein Hassn, a member of the Kirkuk provincial council from Taza, said at the time, arguing that ISIS was drawing upon Saddam-era chemical weapons experts.
Al Mashadani later participated in ISIS operations in Syria, before deciding to flee to Turkey as the group’s self-declared caliphate collapsed in 2017. He was arrested in Baghdad at his son’s home, soon after returning from the Turkish city of Urfa near the Syrian border, Mr Hassan said. “He said he was surprised because he never communicated with anyone from Baghdad,” Mr Hassan wrote, suggesting that Turkey tipped off the Iraqis.
Despite Iraq reportedly holding as many as 20,000 prisoners on terrorism charges, relatively few senior members of ISIS have been captured. Many were killed in battle or by coalition air strikes, but others are believed to have escaped and remain in hiding.
In May, Iraqi authorities reported capturing five senior ISIS officials in a complex operation that involved the rendition of suspects from Turkey. Iraqi state television – which showed them wearing yellow jumpsuits – described them as "some of the most wanted" ISIS leaders.
The whereabouts of ISIS leader and self-declared "caliph" Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi remains unknown.
Iraqi courts have aggressively prosecuted even low-level ISIS members, often issuing harsh sentences after brief trials, a process which has drawn condemnation from rights groups.
According to article 4(1) of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, Al Mashadani faces a mandatory death sentence.