The Story of Baghdadi's Gun
The AKS-74U owned by the Terrorist leader comes to light after his death.
On April 29th 2019, the IS Media outfit Al-Furqan Media Foundation released a video of the fugitive then-leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, entitled “In the Hospitality of the Emir of the Believers”, intended to prove his health and control over the group. In the video, which we now know was filmed in a 6x8m tunnel hideout in the Anbar desert of Iraq, the viewer can clearly see a stubby carbine to the left of al-Baghdadi.
The gun in question is a AKS-74U Carbine made after 1986 in the Tula factory in Russia. In a fascinating turn of events, it was recovered by Iraqi security forces in a remote location in al-Qaim, Iraq, close to the Syrian border, in mid-2019.
While the symbolism of the AKS-74U in the hands of Insurgent leaders is well known, and covered by this author in an extensive thread at the time, let’s focus on the physical gun shown, which until very recently has never seen the light outside of the infamous propaganda video. The previous owner isn’t clear, but one significant possibility is Syria, where the platform is both very popular with both regime and opposition fighters, and has been captured from the regime many times over the course of the conflict there. There’s also an active black market in both countries, where it’s very expensive as a status symbol.
The capture by the Iraqi authorities was part of intelligence operations that managed to capture Mohammed Ali Sajet al-Zoubai, al-Baghdadi’s brother-in-law and aide, as well as others, including the wife of Baghdadi’s courier. Iraqi Intelligence also killed various senior IS figures. al-Zoubai apparently led Iraqi intelligence to at least one hideout, which contained Baghdadi’s AKS-74U. Various important documents and literature were recovered as well as multiple small arms.
Interestingly, 6 magazines were recovered with the carbine, which indicates that that it was no mere prop for use in the propaganda video but perhaps the actual personal weapon that the IS leader carried day to day in Iraq- ready for a possible attempt to capture or kill him. Given it’s compact size and effective cartridge this isn’t necessarily a bad choice, especially when operating in hostile areas, which by April had been the situation for months.
A full-sized AK-74 would be much more effective at ranged combat than the carbine- but if concealable firepower was a prime consideration the AKS-74U would be an ideal choice for the fugitive. Whilst the AKS-74U and it’s 5.45x39mm ammuntion is rather expensive in Iraq, this would be extremely unlikely to be an issue for the cash-rich terrorist group.
A large extended magazine (45 round capacity, meant for the RPK-74 LMG) shown in the video of April 29th was not recovered, however. This was likely added for it’s symbolistic value, meant to replicate other famous leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden.
Mohammed Ali Sajet al-Zoubai has been since interviewed by the Saudi Al Arabiya channel multiple times, including one section in which he holds the very gun, which has a rather unique grain pattern. The gun never accompanied Baghdadi to Idlib, where he met his death in October 2019.
Interviewer: Could you describe Al-Baghdadi's last appearance?
Muhammad Ali Sajet: I can demonstrate it to you. This is the gun he had behind him in his last appearance.
Interviewer: Did [Al-Baghdadi] wear an explosives belt?
Muhammad Ali Sajet: Yes, he did. They had hand-grenades, American machine guns, as well as bazookas – he was completely ready.
Interviewer: Did you think that if there was a raid when you were with him, he would blow himself up, like he did?
Muhammad Ali Sajet: Yes, he would never have surrendered. Even when he slept, the explosives belt was nearby.
- Interview with Mohammed Ali Sajet al-Zoubai, Al Arabiya TV, translated by MEMRI TV
Curiously though, no evidence has yet emerged of the “American machine guns” that al-Baghdadi and his close companions reportedly carried. It’s unclear if the interviewee was referring to US-origin Assault rifles- such as Colt/FN M4-pattern Carbine, Rock River Arms LAR-15 or SIG Sauer M400, all of which are carried by Iraqi forces and often captured and used by IS. The compact M400 in particular is comparable in size to the AKS-74U, with a slightly longer 11.5” barrel, likely giving mildly improved ballistics.
IS Spokesperson with M4-pattern carbine, 2019
Alternatively, the reference to “American machine guns” could refer to modern Western medium or light machine guns, such as the the M240 or M249, which are also very common.
It’s not clear when or if this particular AKS-74U will ever see the light again, but in it’s few inglorious appearances in the spotlight it’s certainly been part of a fascinating story.
Many thanks to Daniele Raineri, who is ridiculously well informed on IS, for alerting the author as to one of Muhammad Ali Sajet’s interviews on Al Arabiya TV. Also to Hassan Hassan, for a very useful thread on Baghdadi’s last months and hideouts.