Dispatch

The Fugitive

Meet Abu Omar: Al Qaeda busted him out of Abu Ghraib. Now he has gone to fight in Syria.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Waiting for the tram in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, Abu Omar is on his way to the mall. No groceries today -- his shopping list includes a Turkish-made tablet computer and a small GPS navigation device loaded with digital maps of the Middle East.

"It's nothing special," says Abu Omar, an Iraqi national, as he puts the goods in his rucksack. "But this stuff might come in handy after I make it to Syria."

Abu Omar, a handsome young man with long black hair, is not the only one making the trek to Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners -- mostly suspected or convicted jihadists -- were freed in July after al Qaeda-linked militants staged a deadly jailbreak at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At the time, Iraqi and Western authorities feared that some of those men would travel to Syria, helping to fuel the rise of extremist groups there. Those fears have now become a reality.

Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break. He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. "Many more are on their way," he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. "Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria."

Abu Omar sees the Syrian war as much more than a struggle against a brutal dictator. For him, it's a war against unbelievers, and its ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic government that transcends the borders of the modern Middle East. "Syria and Iraq are the same struggle to us," he explains. "Both governments in Iraq and Syria are run by unbelievers, so we will fight both. Syria is currently very weak and close to falling into the hands of the mujahideen [jihadists]."

Abu Omar refuses to give his exact age, saying only that he is in his 20s. We were able to contact him through a Syrian activist in Turkey known for his close links to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda's branch in Iraq and Syria. The jihadi organization, which is an extension of al Qaeda's longtime networks in Iraq, has been growing in prominence in Syria's north and east and has even recently clashed with several more moderate rebel groups.

Abu Omar spent 26 months imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, which gained notoriety in 2004 after shocking pictures were published of American guards torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. He was imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, but claims he is innocent of any crime. According to him, the experience of being locked up in Abu Ghraib led to his radicalization. "When I was in prison I met a lot of ISIS inmates," he says. "They convinced me of their ideas. Their ideology of creating a caliphate is the best, and I decided to join them in their fight."

The prison break gave him the opportunity to make good on his word. It was a massive operation: Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that it used suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12 car bombs in the assault on the Abu Ghraib compound, freeing over 500 inmates. According to the Iraqi government, 29 security personnel were killed in the attack.

"The higher-ups within ISIS knew beforehand that Abu Ghraib would be stormed by our comrades," he claims. "So shortly before the attack, we started a huge riot from inside the jail to distract the guards. The mujahideen then entered the prison."

After breaking free, Abu Omar sought refuge in Iraq's western province of Anbar, the traditional heartland of Iraq's Sunnis. The area was once the center of an Islamist insurgency against the U.S. troop presence, and in more recent years it has become a hotbed of resistance to Iraq's Shiite-led government and a crucial gathering point for jihadists bound for Syria.

Abu Omar stayed for a couple of weeks in an ISIS camp set up in Anbar. The camp's leaders provided him with military training and showed him rousing videos of jihadi speeches and operations within Syria.

Later, Syrian jihadists visited the camp. "They explained to us about jihad in Syria," Abu Omar says. "I decided to go there because mosques are being destroyed and Muslim women are being killed by the kafir [unbelievers]."

He considers jihad in Syria "holier" than jihad in Iraq -- a view he says is shared by other extremist fighters. "The Quran and the hadiths already predicted that Satan will be defeated in Damascus," he says.

After Abu Omar made up his mind to leave for jihad in Syria, he was given a cell phone by an Iraqi ISIS member whom he refers to as "my handler." Abu Omar is only allowed to call one number -- that of his handler. The handler, meanwhile, uses his phone only to call Abu Omar's number. It's a precaution designed to protect the jihadi network -- if Abu Omar or his handler is under observation, the authorities can only find one contact from each man's phone.

Before he left for Syria, Abu Omar decided to visit a barber and shave his beard. This way he would not stand out as a religious man. Clean-shaven, he traveled north to Iraq's Kurdish region, snuck into the part of northern Syria controlled by the Kurdish rebels, and then illegally crossed the border into Turkey.

Abu Omar's handler told him to travel to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and gave him the address of an ISIS safe house there. He stayed for a couple of days at the safe house, where he met fellow ISIS members who entrusted him with $10,000. "This money is meant for the mujahideen of Syria. I'll bring it to them," Abu Omar explains.

The day after Abu Omar went shopping, his phone rang again. "Please know that you will go tomorrow to Syria," he says his handler told him. "Be ready; somebody will pick you up."

On Sept. 18, Abu Omar was taken by a Syrian ISIS contact to the Turkish border town of Kilis, just a stone's throw away from Syria. After illegally crossing the border into Syrian territory, he kissed the ground and prayed. Five minutes later, his new comrades picked him up and drove him to the nearby town of Azaz, where he disappeared into the fog of Syria's war.

Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Dispatch

My Booze-Soaked, $12,000 Round-Trip Junket to Nowhere

Qatar Airways sits reporters in vibrating seats, loads them with 39-year-old wine, and never explicitly asks for glowing press coverage.

Judging by Washington's staid social standards -- or really, any standard -- the party sounded utterly bizarre.

Qatar Airways, the state-owned carrier of the Persian Gulf petro-garchy, had invited a small number of guests to a four-course meal -- designed by celebrity chefs and accompanied by premium wines -- all served in the business-class cabin of a Boeing 777 parked on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport.

The plane wasn't leaving Northern Virginia. But we would be treated to the same luxury service that, at current rates, would set you back $11,721 for a round-trip flight from D.C. to Doha. Perhaps because of where I work, or the elegantly written invitation, I had imagined that this event was to "celebrate" Qatar and promote its tourism industry, and that it would be attended mostly by government officials and business executives. You will appreciate my profound disappointment, followed by the dawning suspicion that I had either been tricked or not read the fine print, when I looked around the dimly lit cool blue cabin and saw … a bunch of journalists.

I should have known. This fete was like so many boozy boondoggles for print reporters, a mutually beneficial if occasionally ethically dicey exchange of good copy for free publicity. I had hoped the crowd would be a mix of Washington heavies and foreign dignitaries. And given that we'd be essentially trapped in close quarters for two hours with nothing to do but eat rich food and drink expensive wine, I imagined an in-flight bacchanalia of elegant flight attendants dropping black cod with miso by Nobu Matsuhisa into the overserved mouths of Qatari Foreign Ministry officials while pouring Krug champagne out of a gold opera slipper. Scoops would fall into my Frette linen napkin.

"Of course that's gonna happen!" I thought to myself. "I should go."

Instead, my 25 or so companions on this five-star grounding were the top tier of Washington's food, travel, and society reporters. I've run alongside this crowd over the years, always as the guest of a guest at various book parties, restaurant openings, and the occasional gala. My fellow passengers worked for, among others, the Washington Post, Capitol File, Washington Life, Bloomberg, and Washingtonian magazine, where I used to work. I was the plus-1 of a former colleague, who had been invited by the airline's PR team.

I had to give Qatar credit. These are exactly the people you'd want trapped in a climate-controlled aluminum tube if you owned a small luxury airline trying to woo wealthy Washingtonians into your fully reclining, vibrating leather seats. Which, I realized when I sat down, are awesome. I knew that I was of limited use to the publicity mavens who had engineered this uniquely strange evening. I occasionally write about airplanes, but not like this. Still, when in Doha (or Dulles)…

We settled into our magic-finger massaging pods and pulled out burled wood tray tables. We were served two perfectly chilled glasses of Champagne, Billecart-Salmon brut and Bollinger rosé, because, you know, who can choose?

Our sommelier -- who said he once carted bottles of red wine and Champagne to the base camp of Mount Everest to see how they taste at high altitude -- informed us that the dry, recirculated air of the cabin dulls one's palate. So for Qatar Airways, he had selected stronger wines than he might serve in a restaurant that doesn't fly. Oakier Bordeaux. Sharper sauvignon blancs. I assume that these wines also lose their potency aloft, and that's why he poured so many of them.

My black cod was almost as good as the fish at Nobu New York. I had a "mint and pea" soup that tasted of neither peas nor mint, but was redolent of turmeric and tamarind and tasty enough to put on the menu of my favorite Indian restaurant in D.C. My beef fillet was, as expected, overcooked and dry. There's only so much you can do in an airplane galley kitchen. But when it comes paired with a 2006 Château le Bon Pasteur, who cares, baby?

It was at this point in the evening that most of us discovered the adjustable foot rests and my companion wondered whether they'd let us watch a movie on our personal video screens. I eyed the embroidered blanket in the neat plastic pouch. We asked a flight attendant to take pictures of us "sleeping" in the fully kicked-back seats that now became beds. I was seriously contemplating putting on the pajamas that came in my swag bag and thought it would only be prudent to moisturize with that Ferragamo face cream they gave us. It's very dry in airplane cabins, I reminded myself, as I sipped the Colheita port. Its 1974 vintage made it older than I am.

As I lingered over my roasted chocolate wafer fascination, I thought about a good friend who frequently flies from Washington to Asia for work and only travels business class. The reason to do it, he said, is not to be spoiled. It's to eat marginally better food, have a decent wine and maybe a cognac, and then drift into a mildly comfortable booze-assisted sleep so you don't feel like a zombie when you land after a 14-hour flight. It's not luxurious. It's a battle against jet lag.

My friend is full of crap. If you had the choice and the means, you would always -- always -- fly this way. Are you kidding? On the flight from Doha to Washington, passengers in front are served Château d'Yquem. For all non-wine snobs, this would be like Uber picking you up in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It exceeds the bounds of necessity and propriety.

This is, of course, exactly what Qatar Airways wants me to tell you. That was the point of this entire evening. And you would be very happy indeed to sit in that chair and fly on that plane. Would you be happier than if you flew on Qatar's competitors, Etihad Airways and Emirates, which are respectively based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Maybe. But those are cities that, unlike Doha, people routinely visit for pleasure. "Comparing Dubai to Doha, it's like New York vs. Huntsville, Alabama," a companion remarked. So maybe it really is about the destination, not the journey.

I'll say this for the airline. No one made an overt sales pitch. There was no PowerPoint marketing presentation in place of the preflight safety briefing. It was a gracious, very odd little diversion, and at no point did anyone ask me whether I planned to write about it. I also have no plans to travel to the Gulf in the near future.

But later, I was told that some journalists aboard had taken complimentary flights from Qatar in the past -- in business class -- as had at least one of their bosses. I wasn't surprised. This kind of trade happens. Not a lot, but it happens. In my experience, it's more on the business side of publications than the editorial.

For a reporter, there's never an overt quid pro quo in covering events like this. The journalists who do it best don't take more from their hosts than dinner and the occasional cheesy gift bag. Often they'll give away the contents to co-workers the next day or put it in a pile that's donated to charity.

But if you want to come back, there's an expectation that whatever you write will be, if not entirely flattering, not remotely vicious. I don't write travel stories, and I don't cover the airline industry. I'm pretty sure I won't be invited back the next time the Qatar Cafe is back in town. (I'd love to be proved wrong.) But the reminder that I wasn't really a guest on this first-class flight made for a rough landing.

Courtesy Public, NYC