By Bassem Mroue
BEIRUT — Lebanese authorities detained a woman and young boy believed to be the wife and son of the reclusive Islamic State group leader, and were questioning the woman and conducting DNA tests on the child, senior Lebanese officials said Tuesday.
If their identities are confirmed, Lebanon may use the pair as bargaining chips to win the release of soldiers and police taken hostage by the extremists in cross-border attacks earlier this year.
The woman, who was identified as an Iraqi, and the child were taken into custody about 10 days ago while carrying fake ID cards, the officials said.
Very little is known about Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s personal life, including how many wives and children he has. Conservative interpretations of Islam allow men to marry up to four wives. The Islamic State group did not immediately comment on the detentions, but the faction’s supporters on Twitter and militant websites cast doubt on the reports.
Adding to the confusion, the Lebanese army did not release an official statement regarding the pair.
A Lebanese military official identified the woman as Saja al-Dulaimi who was held by Syrian authorities and freed in a prisoner exchange with the Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida-linked branch, earlier this year. The official said the woman “confessed during interrogation” that she was al-Baghdadi’s wife.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In March, the Nusra Front freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns in exchange for the release of dozens of female prisoners by the Syrian government. A woman named Saja al-Dulaimi was reportedly on the list of prisoners freed by Damascus.
A judicial official said the interrogation of the woman was being supervised by Lebanon’s military prosecutor, Saqr Saqr, and that a DNA test was underway to confirm that the child is her son. Experts said it would be difficult to confirm whether the woman is indeed al-Baghdadi’s wife.
It was unclear what would have brought the woman and child to Lebanon, where IS controls no territory and enjoys only small — although growing — support in some predominantly Sunni Muslim areas.
The detentions added to the mystery that continues to surround al-Baghdadi, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. He has only made one known public appearance — a sermon he delivered in July at a mosque in Mosul just days after IS declared him the head of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the territory the group controls in Syria and Iraq.
Last month, Iraqi officials claimed he was wounded in an airstrike. The U.S. has not confirmed those reports, and al-Baghdadi released a new audiotape days after he was purportedly hit.
The Lebanese daily As-Safir first reported the detention of the Islamic State leader’s alleged relatives, saying the woman and boy were taken into custody near a border crossing point with Syria. It said the arrest came in “coordination with foreign intelligence agencies.”
If the pair’s identities are confirmed, the detentions could give Lebanese authorities leverage in their attempts to reach a prisoner-exchange deal with militants from the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front. The extremists have been holding more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage since August, and have demanded the release of Islamist prisoners held by Lebanon. On Monday night, the Nusra Front threatened to kill one of the soldiers it holds captive.
Lebanese troops have clashed repeatedly with militants along the border with Syria since August.
On Tuesday, militants ambushed a Lebanese army patrol near the frontier, killing six soldiers and wounding one, Lebanon’s military said. The attack occurred in a remote region of Ras Baalbek in eastern Lebanon and was followed by clashes, the army said in a statement.
It was not clear who was behind the attack, but there was no immediate indication that it was connected to the detention of al-Baghdadi’s alleged family.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Islamic State group released a video claiming responsibility for a shooting that wounded a Danish citizen in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last month.
The video, posted online Monday by the Al-Battar Media Foundation, shows a gunman pulling up beside a vehicle and firing five times at the man inside, identified as Thomas Hoepner. The video’s authenticity could not be confirmed but it was posted on a website commonly used by militants.
Saudi security officials say a Danish man was shot while driving Nov. 22, and that he was treated for shoulder wounds. They did not release his name.
If confirmed, the shooting would be the first attack on foreigners in the kingdom carried out by Islamic State supporters. About a decade ago, al-Qaida militants seeking to topple the Western-allied monarchy launched a wave of attacks that killed scores of security forces and Westerners in Saudi Arabia.
The video also includes audio clips of Islamic State group leaders calling on supporters to launch attacks inside the kingdom.
In Brussels, Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard told reporters Tuesday that “the Dane is doing better.”
Denmark and Saudi Arabia are part of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.