The rise of the new ‘caliph,’ ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Posted: July 28, 2014 in ISIS

By Paul Crompton
Al Arabiya News | 30 June 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has “become the leader for Muslims everywhere,” his organization said Sunday while declaring the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

A caliphate has not existed since the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924.

Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

(Design by Farwa Rizwan/ Al Arabiya News)

Only two known photos of Baghdadi are said to exist, and he does not appear in video statements common to other jihadist leaders such as the late Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Baghdadi – whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai – is believed to have been born in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971 to a “religious family,” according to a biography purporting to be written by his supporters.

The biography says he obtained a doctorate at Baghdad’s Islamic University.

He was a cleric in a mosque in his home city around the time of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled long-time President Saddam Hussein.

Some believe Baghdadi was already a militant jihadist during Hussein’s largely secular reign.

However, others say he turned towards his radical, hard-line interpretation of Islam during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention facility in Iraq.

Upon his release in 2009, Baghdadi reportedly told his captors: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”

One American jailer took this to mean that Baghdadi had “known all along that it was all essentially a joke, that he had only to wait and he would be freed to go back to what he had been doing.”

Baghdadi then joined the fledgling Islamic State of Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s successor in the war-torn country.

ISI soon became the dominant Sunni force in Iraq, known for suicide bombings, kidnappings and executions. Al-Qaeda denounced this apparent bloodthirsty streak.

In late 2011, Washington officially designated Baghdadi a “terrorist,” and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Baghdadi appeared to take on his tenure at ISI with enthusiasm, quickly climbing the ranks.

He was declared leader in 2010 after then-leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed by American and Iraqi forces.

When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Baghdadi saw an opportunity to expand his group.

He sent Abu Mohammed al-Golani to create the Nusra Front to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Among the fray of seemingly countless groups battling for control of Syria, the success of the Nusra Front led Baghdadi in 2013 to move across the border and merge the groups into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In so doing, he had ignored decrees from Zawahiri that the merger was invalid and that Baghdadi should return to Iraq.

Baghdadi said in an audio recording: “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.”

Escalating tensions between their parent group, ISIS said Al-Qaeda “is no longer the base of jihad,” and its leaders “have deviated from the correct paths.”

In Feb. 2014, Al-Qaeda released a statement that “it is not linked to [ISIS], as it was not informed of its creation” and “did not accept it.”

Baghdadi’s hard-line interpretation of Islam has been enforced in towns where the group has a heavy presence.

In the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, where ISIS has complete control, heavy-handed laws abound, including corporal and capital punishment for crimes, public floggings, mandatory prayers, and total bans of alcohol and cigarettes.

Baghdadi is reportedly barely recognized even within his own organization, earning him the nickname “the invisible sheikh.”

An investigating officer in Iraq told Middle East affairs site Al-Monitor: “Many of the… members of the organization, some of them in the leadership, have either never met Baghdadi or met him while he was wearing a face cover.”

A major milestone for ISIS came in June, when the group took Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul and numerous other cities in the north of the country.

This took the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and the international community – by surprise.

As the armies of both Maliki and Assad struggle to combat ISIS’s sweeping cross-border campaigns, many analysts say the group has far more power than Al-Qaeda ever did.

However, Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University, says ISIS could be reaching the peak of its capacity.

“As ISIS grows, it’ll be more difficult to manage and control its members. It seems to be growing quickly with the additions of deserters, criminals, hangers on, and those lost people looking for a reason to be. These aren’t exactly the easiest folks to manage,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service, told Agence France-Presse:

“Baghdadi has done an amazing amount – he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”


Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
BBC | 5 July 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has been careful to reveal little about himself and his whereabouts.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance on video when he gave a sermon in Mosul in July

Before appearing in a video delivering a sermon in Mosul in July, there were only two authenticated photos of him.

Even his own fighters reportedly do not speak about seeing him face to face.

The ISIS chief also appears to wear a mask to address his commanders, earning the nickname "the invisible sheikh".

But Baghdadi – a nom de guerre, rather than his real name – has good reason to maintain a veil of mystery, says the BBC’s Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner.

One of his predecessors, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who headed the most violent jihadist group in Iraq until his death, was a high-profile showman whose secret location was eventually tracked down. He was killed in a US bombing raid in 2006.

The leader of al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in Iraq may be a shadowy figure, but his organisation ISIS is pulling in thousands of new recruits and has become one of the most cohesive militias in the Middle East, our correspondent adds.

Highly organised

Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971.

Reports suggest he was a cleric in a mosque in the city around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.

Some believe he was already a militant jihadist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Others suggest he was radicalised during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a US facility in southern Iraq where many al-Qaeda commanders were detained.

He emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that later became ISIS, in 2010, and rose to prominence during the attempted merger with al-Nusra Front in Syria.

He has not sworn allegiance to the leader of the al-Qaeda network, Zawahiri, who has urged ISIS to focus on Iraq and leave Syria to al-Nusra.

Baghdadi and his fighters have openly defied the al-Qaeda chief, leading some commentators to believe he now holds higher prestige among many Islamist militants.

"The true heir to Osama bin Laden may be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post.

Zawahiri still has a lot of power by virtue of his franchises in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

But Baghdadi has a reputation as a highly organised and ruthless battlefield tactician, which analysts say makes his organisation more attractive to young jihadists than that of Zawahiri, an Islamic theologian.

In October 2011, the US officially designated Baghdadi as "terrorist" and offered a $10m (£5.8m; 7.3m euros) reward for information leading to his capture or death.

It notes Baghdadi’s aliases, including Abu Duaa and Dr Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai.

As well as the uncertainty surrounding his true identity, his whereabouts are also unclear with reports he was in Raqqa in Syria.

So there remain more questions than answers about the leader of one of the world’s most dangerous jihadist groups.

How Zarqawi’s terror network morphed into ISIS
Octavia Nasr
Al Arabiya News | 1 July 2014

Forgetting is one of our survival mechanisms and, thankfully, it works most of the time when dealing with trauma or painful memories. However, forgetting history can yield unpleasant results; while constantly picking and choosing what to remember and what to forget is a disaster.

When in conflict, people seem to refer to the very last thing that triggered their reaction. They focus more on the end result rather than the root of the problem. In the Middle East the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always taken center stage. It served as an excuse for many extreme political views to thrive and terrorist groups to form.

Remember Osama bin Laden’s diatribes in which he blamed his terrorism on the mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israel and its “accomplice” America. That was one of the main reasons why he claimed he was determined to “bring America to its knees.” Many others around the world joined him and set up their own franchise of al-Qaeda.

Idolized the terror leader

Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was one of those who idolized the terror leader and had a desire to go even further. He came to Iraq following the fall of Baghdad where he set up his Islamic “Emirate” and lured disillusioned and brainwashed young men to participate in his own version of Jihad.

His pledge of allegiance to bin Laden was not quickly accepted. Even for bin Laden, Zarqawi seemed harsh and ad-hoc. Lest you forgot, Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq is the genesis of what is known today as ISIS.


Let us remember that Iraq under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein had no Zarqawi, bin Laden, nor al-Qaeda of any kind. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda and ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction was utterly frugal and unfounded. Saddam Hussein was secular and the archenemy of any religious fundamentalist group; but Bush and his warmongers were intent on war to eliminate Saddam Hussein.

With the introduction and quick rise of brutal Zarqawi, the solution seemed to be then nabbing Zarqawi in an air raid and pretending this is the end of his terror.

In ten years, Zarqawi’s terror network grew exponentially in size and brutality. It morphed into ISIS, a serious regional – soon to be international – threat. Suffice it to remember that the region has been a fertile ground for infiltration and terrorism to understand the real problem and do something about it.

This article was first published in al-Nahar on July 1, 2014.


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