I then approached two men, one of whom seemed old enough to know all those who lived in the area in the last 40 years. When I asked if he knew Baghdadi, the man’s face changed, and he said with fear in his eyes while looking at his friend, “We don’t know him, he was one of few young students who lived here 15 years ago. Nobody knows him well. This is an old story that we prefer not to discuss."
The last group of men I met were more forthcoming. A man in his late 70s told me he used to see him in the area but never spoke to him, while another man roughly the same age said, “He wasn’t the mosque’s imam, he was a tailor and he was a student too.” A third man, about 35 years old, said Baghdadi lived there while he was studying at the Iraqi University before the US invasion of Iraq. “He wasn’t alone, he had a family with him. The guy seemed very normal, and yes I do remember him very well,” the man told me.
The younger man waited until I left a group I had been standing with and then approached me, revealing that he knew Baghdadi very well. After introducing himself as Amjad, he said, “Sheikh Ibrahim [Baghdadi] was someone very normal, someone like you. He didn’t have any complexities in his life, and we used to play football here,” as he pointed to an empty piece of land next to the mosque. “He was obsessed with scoring goals; he would become nervous if he didn’t.” Amjad added, “When the US invaded Iraq he decided to take up arms and fight — he changed a lot after that.”
As Amjad finished speaking, one of the gentlemen I met earlier said, “Are you still asking about the same guy? We told you we don’t know anything about him. This is an old story and we have no intention to answer your questions.” It was obvious that my trip to Tobji was over, but my search wasn’t.
According to official documents, Baghdadi is married to two women who gave birth to his six children. His first wife, Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Kubeisi, his first cousin, is the mother of Huzaifa, Omaima, Yaman, Hasan and Fatima. Israa Rajab Mahal al-Qaisi is his second wife and the mother of his youngest son, Ali. It is unknown whether Asma or Israa live with him, yet Abu Ahmad, who claims he has known Baghdadi since the 1990s and studied with him at the same university and was part of his close circle, suggested they reside within the territories that he controls. Abu Ahmad agreed to talk to me on two conditions: that he cover his face and we conduct the interview in my hotel room.