BEIRUT — For months, the ex-wife of perhaps the most wanted man in the world used Lebanon as a base to secretly transfer cash to Islamist militants, according to Lebanese military officials.
She concealed her identity with fake documents, which listed her as a Syrian citizen named Mallak Abdullah, the officials said. Eventually, they said, they discovered that she was Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi who had been briefly married six years ago to the man who now heads the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In November, the army detained Dulaimi with a girl who is Baghdadi’s biological daughter, the officials said.
The investigation into Dulaimi has shed light on the murky ways in which Islamist militias move funds through the Middle East. It has also illustrated how the families of Syrian and Iraqi militants are quietly settling in Lebanon, hiding in refugee camps and the occasional Christian village. And it has yielded an intriguing profile of someone who defies the image of submissive women in the jihadist world.
Dulaimi has had at least three husbands and lived in several countries in the region, according to the military officials. They described her as strong-willed and independent. Military officials said she transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to Sunni militants operating along Lebanon’s border with Syria.
“She’s not your stereotypical woman” in the world of militant Islam, said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics. He described her profile as that of an “honorary jihadi man” in the eyes of such groups.
More such women are carrying out suicide operations and helping to collect intelligence and distribute funds for radical groups, he said.
For Lebanon, her case points to the challenge posed by the families of Syrian and Iraqi militants who have moved here. Dulaimi has been charged in a Lebanese military court with financing terrorism and has been denied access to a lawyer.
Dulaimi, who is in her 30s, was based in the impoverished mountain city of Arsal on the Syrian border, military officials said. She blended in easily in a makeshift encampment for Syrian refugees, who outnumber the 35,000 locals, a resident of the city said.
“There are lots of people in these areas so she lived anonymously while she was here,” said the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.
Another Lebanese resident of Arsal said the town was home to many family members of extremists fighting in Syria.
“We all know that the wives and families of the fighters and commanders are living in Arsal, because they don’t have any other place to put them,” said the resident, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name, Bahjat.
About six years ago, Lebanese military officials said, Dulaimi married Baghdadi, who is originally from Samarra, a city north of Baghdad. The marriage lasted for only about three months, said Sheik Hassan al-Dulaimi, a prominent elder from Iraq’s Anbar province who is from the same tribe as Saja al-Dulaimi, in a telephone interview.
Lebanese officials said the union was pushed by Dulaimi’s father, Hamid al-Dulaimi. Marriages in Iraq’s tribal area can be politically motivated affairs, aimed at cementing ties between families, and Hamid al-Dulaimi may have sought an alliance with Baghdadi at a time when the younger man and other militants were incensed by the U.S. occupation and were gravitating to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the group currently occupying chunks of Iraq and Syria.
But Labib Kamhawi, an analyst based in Jordan, said that it could have been Baghdadi who pushed for the union, given the prominence of Dulaimi’s tribe. He noted that Iraqi tradition allows for relatively easy divorce, making a breakup fairly simple.
The Lebanese military officials described Saja al-Dulaimi, who does not veil her face, as strikingly beautiful. She was combative during recent interrogation sessions, they said.
“It’s because she’s committed to her beliefs,” said one of the officials involved with her case, referring to the militant Islamist cause. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a lack of authorization to discuss the issue.
According to Lebanese officials, analysts and media reports, Dulaimi had been married to another Iraqi before Baghdadi and had two sons from that relationship. Her daughter with Baghdadi is thought to be about 5 years old.
Lebanese officials said that multiple members of Dulaimi’s family have participated in militant activities in Iraq and Syria. Hamid, her father, eventually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, they said. He was killed more than a year ago while fighting near the Syrian city of Homs, according to officials.
About that time, they said, Saja was apprehended by Syrian government forces near Homs, where she had been living with her father and sister. In March 2014, she was among 150 people whom the Syrian government freed in a prisoner swap with militants linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, who handed over a group of Greek Orthodox nuns, the officials said.
She then moved to Lebanon.
Authorities said Dulaimi moved money to militants operating along Lebanon’s border with Syria. In August, the militants — linked to the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing — besieged Arsal while Dulaimi was living there. The militants withdrew to Syria several days later, taking more than 20 Lebanese soldiers as prisoners.
Dulaimi received at least $200,000 via wire-transfer agencies and charity organizations, then distributed the cash to fighters, said a senior military intelligence official, who also has been involved with Dulaimi’s interrogations at the Defense Ministry compound near Beirut.
Some of the money came from residents of Persian Gulf countries, he said, adding that it was sent to organizations in Lebanon that “work under the cover of aid for Syrian refugees.”
Dulaimi could more easily move the money to militants because she is a woman, said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese analyst who is close to military officials. Conservative traditions make soldiers, most of them male, wary of searching women and girls at checkpoints and border crossings, he said.
“Groups like al-Qaeda use women to exploit these traditions to their advantage, just like Saja did,” Zahran said.
Lebanese security agencies discovered Dulaimi’s activities through a tip from a Western intelligence agency, said the military officials, who declined to identify the agency.
The senior intelligence officer said DNA tests were carried out on Dulaimi and the young girl after they were detained in November. He added that the DNA samples of Baghdadi were obtained with assistance from an unspecified U.S. agency. A decade ago, Baghdadi was imprisoned in Iraq by U.S. forces. DNA samples may have been collected from detainees at the time. Last month, Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced on local television that Dulaimi was a former wife of Baghdadi’s and that the girl was his daughter.
Lebanese authorities have apprehended family members of other militants linked to organizations such as the Islamic State. They include the wife and children of an Islamic State-affiliated fighter named Anas Sharkas, known as Abu Ali al-Shishani, a nom de guerre. His family, all Syrians, were detained recently while living in a predominantly Christian village in northern Lebanon. His wife has not been charged with a crime, and it appears she was not involved in militant activities. The authorities may be holding the family as bargaining chips for the release of the Lebanese soldiers kidnapped in Arsal, allegedly with Shishani’s involvement.
Last month, Shishani threatened to kidnap Lebanese women and children if authorities did not release his family.
Baghdadi is not known to have issued any such threat after his daughter and ex-wife were detained. As for Dulaimi, she moved on to another relationship, Lebanese military officials said.
After she arrived in Lebanon last year, she linked up with a man from a Palestinian refugee camp who had a history of militant activity, Lebanese military officials said. The man has been arrested on allegations of aiding Dulaimi in financing extremists, they said, adding that she is pregnant with his child.
“What we are dealing with here are literally the children of al-Qaeda,” said a high-ranking army officer.