WASHINGTON – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the jihadist powerhouse that’s steamrolling across northwestern Iraq, remains a cypher despite his years in an American-run prison and the $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.
His real name is known, as are a slew of aliases and his hometown, Samarra. But nearly all the rest – his supposed penchant for poetry, his clerical lineage and his battlefield acumen – comes from unconfirmed jihadist folklore, only adding to the mystique of a commander whose bloody exploits in Syria and Iraq have drawn condemnation from rival Islamists but also praise from admirers of a maverick who’s made al-Qaida look old-fashioned.
Al-Baghdadi’s low profile, according to analysts of militant groups, is just one of many ways he’s distinguished himself from the more visible leadership of core al-Qaida, the group that spawned his Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but severed ties last year when al-Baghdadi openly defied orders in the Syrian conflict. Unchastened, al-Baghdadi doubled down in Syria, fighting both the government and rebel opponents, and now he’s launched an audacious Iraq campaign that overwhelmed the U.S.-trained security forces and won ISIS new territory and treasure.
In its first pronouncement after seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS made clear Thursday that it sees al-Baghdadi as the pre-eminent man in a new period of Islamic history: “Now is the era of the Islamic state and the reign of Imam Abu Bakr al-Quraishi,” it said, referring to al-Baghdadi by one of his aliases.
For U.S. counterterrorism specialists who’d watched jihad become synonymous with Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri – two men fixated on training camps and splashy international attacks – the rise of this quieter commander with a more localized, long-term strategy for an Islamic caliphate poses all sorts of questions: Can he hold on to his new conquests? Will he push toward Baghdad? Would a U.S. military intervention prevent a terrorist haven in Iraq or only fuel Sunni Muslim support for al-Baghdadi?
But first, they’d like to know, who is this guy?
“He’s exciting because since there’s been an al-Qaida, there hasn’t been a group that’s challenged it like this,” said Patrick Johnston, who studies Iraqi insurgent groups for the RAND Corp., the California-based research institute. “The fact that ISIS managed to get itself kicked out of al-Qaida is pretty amazing. And the fact that that didn’t spell an end to it – it might’ve actually galvanized it, instead – really shows me that there’s a leader here who’s intriguing. A leader we’re desperate to know more about.”
It’s difficult to separate fact from legend when it comes to al-Baghdadi’s biography. The version on jihadist websites says he became a preacher, like his brothers and uncles, after earning a doctorate from a religious university in Baghdad. He’s thought to have joined the Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He was captured by the Americans in 2005 and was held at Camp Bucca in sweltering southern Iraq for years, though it’s difficult to pinpoint the circumstances and timing of his release. In any case, he was free by 2010 and already had ascended enough in the jihadist movement that he assumed control of al-Qaida’s Iraq branch after the deaths of two superiors.
Al-Baghdadi has proved that he’s capable of delivering on his threats. His eulogy for bin Laden in May 2011 warned of “violent retaliation” – within days, Iraq saw a barrage of high-casualty bombings and other attacks. Early in the Syrian civil war, al-Baghdadi dispatched his foot soldiers to join the fight; the better-armed and better-trained fighters easily eclipsed many of the more moderate, ragtag rebel groups who didn’t enjoy the same resources. Al-Baghdadi loyalists stayed in the battle even after the break with al-Qaida over orders that he should focus on Iraq and leave Syria to other factions.
“I chose the command of God” over al-Zawahiri’s directives, al-Baghdadi is quoted as saying.
Johnston said “coercion and capital” had helped al-Baghdadi’s attempts at building a modern-day “caliphate,” a word whose derivation comes from the idea of a successor to Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and has been used to describe every Muslim empire since Muhammad’s time.
Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, Johnston and other close monitors of the group say, ISIS has built an organization spanning western Iraq and eastern Syria that includes statelike institutions, reached a high degree of self-sufficiency through aggressive fundraising, become adept at media manipulation and refused to kowtow before al-Qaida’s elders.
Al-Baghdadi’s insubordination made him anathema to sympathizers of a more traditional brand of jihad, who accuse ISIS of brutalizing civilians instead of focusing on the removal of autocrats such as Syrian President Bashar Assad. Monitors of militant groups shake their heads at the irony of the al-Qaida camp labeling ISIS extremist. And U.S. counterterrorism specialists choose their words carefully in the public sphere, aware that comparisons between al-Qaida and ISIS risk making al-Zawahiri look good.
Yet, despite the chilling videos of ISIS beheadings and hand choppings, there’s also appeal for al-Baghdadi as a leader who, as Johnston put it, has “done the impossible when al-Qaida has been degraded in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.”
In some quarters, al-Baghdadi is seen as standing up for disenfranchised Sunnis in the face of Western and Iranian oppression. Fans post photos of their children holding thank-you placards dedicated to him; one posted a photo of a cake decorated as a black ISIS flag. Al-Baghdadi’s latest actions in Iraq have drawn a new round of condemnation – and a new crop of supporters.
One popular tweet making the rounds on jihadist social media hailed him as today’s Salahuddin, the early Muslim ruler who fought the Crusaders.
“ISIL is like the latest iPhone version,” said Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, using an alternative acronym for ISIS. “They’re the latest generation of al-Qaida: They’re very savvy, very ruthless, and they have financial capability and media presence. They’re on Twitter.”
Johnston, the RAND analyst, said al-Baghdadi’s interest in keeping the fight regional meant that despite its brutalities, ISIS might pose less of a direct threat to U.S. national security interests than core al-Qaida, with its targeting of Western nations and interests.
“The worst thing the U.S. could do in the near term is to become more aggressive in any kind of intervention, because given the inward-focused, Islamic state-building strategy of ISIS, they seem more intent in pursuing local and regional aims that are not inconsequential to the United States but are not the same kinds of grave national security threats as attacks on the homeland,” Johnston said.
Unlike the foreign-born leaders of previous incarnations of the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi is a native Iraqi, undoubtedly a plus as he enters risky partnerships with more nationalist Sunni militant factions in Iraq and takes steps to reassure wary Iraqi communities that the group won’t – at least not immediately – start beheading those it deems insufficiently pious.