In 2018, Forbes named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the world’s most powerful people. In a list that identifies “75 men and women [who] make the world turn,” the ISIS leader was ranked 73rd. Not only have al-Baghdadi and ISIS become synonymous with terrorism “in the name of Islam,” but the brutal leader and his militant jihadist group have also prompted global powers to come together to eradicate ISIS’s violence in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.
Although many people now know who al-Baghdadi is, very few knew who he was before he became the leader of ISIS and how he came to build the global terrorist network that seeks to establish a radical, supposedly “Islamic,” nation in Iraq and the Levant (Greater Syria). Who is al-Baghdadi and how did the self-declared “caliph” (chief Muslim civil and religious ruler) of the Islamic State ascend to power?
Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Al-Baghdadi, whose given name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, was born in 1971 into a lower middle class Sunni family in Samarra, Iraq. His father was a religious man who taught Qur’anic recitation in a local mosque. In his youth, al-Baghdadi “was withdrawn, taciturn, and, when he spoke, barely audible,” according to an article by William McCants, a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.
When al-Baghdadi was not in school, he was immersed in his religious studies. As a young man, he was known for his passion for Qur’anic recitation and strict adherence to religious doctrine. According to his brother, Shamsi, “he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law,” which led his family to nickname him “the Believer.”
Al-Baghdadi went on to pursue his passion for religion at university, earning a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad in 1996. He later pursued a master’s and a doctorate in Qur’anic studies from Saddam University for Islamic Studies in 1999 and 2007, respectively. Details of al-Baghdadi’s life between 2000 and 2004 are “extremely sketchy,” according to McCants.
“He seems to have had two wives and six children,” McCants said, and, like other conservative Muslims, kept his wives from public view and “didn’t mix much socially himself, preferring to spend time with his family in their small apartment near the Haji Zaydan mosque in the poor Tobchi neighborhood of Baghdad.” In Tobchi, al-Baghdadi taught Qur’anic recitation at the local mosque and was the star of the mosque’s soccer club.
In graduate school, al-Baghdadi’s paternal uncle, Ismail al-Badri, persuaded him to join the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Baghdad were peaceful Salafis (Salafism is a branch of Sunni Islam whose modern-day adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors”) who wanted states to impose Islamic law “but didn’t advocate revolt if the states failed to do so.”
Al-Baghdadi quickly gravitated “toward those few Salafis whose strict creed led them to call for the overthrow of rulers they considered betrayers of the faith,” according to McCants. By 2000, under the tutelage of the Baghdad-based Islamist movement, al-Baghdadi embraced Salafist jihadism.
The Radicalization of al-Baghdadi
It is believed that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 played a vital role in further radicalizing al-Baghdadi.
It is believed that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 played a vital role in further radicalizing al-Baghdadi. Within months of the invasion, he helped found the insurgent group Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jammah (Army of the People of the Sunnah and Communal Solidarity). The group fought U.S. troops and their local allies in northern and central Iraq. The following February, American forces arrested al-Baghdadi in Fallujah and held him at a detention facility at Camp Bucca for months.
According to a fellow inmate, al-Baghdadi “had a knack for moving between the rival factions at the facility, where former Saddam loyalists and jihadists mingled.” During his detention, he continued zealously to practice his faith—leading prayers, preaching Friday sermons, and conducting classes for prisoners.
Ten months later, in December 2004, al-Baghdadi was released. Shortly thereafter, he contacted a spokesman for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a local al-Qaeda affiliate run by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Impressed by al-Baghdadi’s religious knowledge, the spokesman convinced al-Baghdadi to go to Damascus, where he was tasked with ensuring that AQI’s propaganda adhered to the principles of ultra-conservative Islam.
Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadist, succeeded him. Shortly after taking over the leadership of the terrorist organization, al-Masri dissolved it and founded the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in its place. While the newly established group publicly upheld that they were independent of al-Qaeda, the new leaders privately pledged oaths of allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In the following year, al-Baghdadi quickly rose through the ranks of ISI. Initially, he was appointed the supervisor of the Sharia Committee and named to the 11-member Shura Council that advised ISI’s emir (ruler). Eventually, he was appointed to ISI’s coordination committee, a “powerful three-man panel that could select, supervise, and fire the Islamic State’s commanders in the group’s Iraqi provinces.”
The Birth of ISIS
After the death of al-Masri, ISI’s founder and emir, in April 2010, the Shura Council chose al-Baghdadi to be the terrorist organization’s new leader. Al-Baghdadi took various measures to rebuild ISI, including ordering the establishment of a secret branch of the organization in Syria in 2011. The Syrian branch later came to be known as al-Nusra Front.
When the objectives of al-Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, began to diverge with al-Baghdadi’s goal of establishing an Islamic state through brute force, tensions started to rise. Then, in the spring of 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra was part of ISIS, and he renamed it the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or the Levant (Greater Syria). (Now, the English acronyms ISIS and ISIL are used interchangeably; however, the group is also referred to as “Daesh,” an acronym for its Arabic designation.)
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, disliked al-Baghdadi, and he ordered the independence of al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi’s refusal led to ISIS’s expulsion from al-Qaeda in February 2014. In response, ISIS fought al-Nusra, consolidated its hold on eastern Syria, and proceeded to expand into western Iraq.
In June 2014, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Soon thereafter, the group’s spokesman “proclaimed the return of the caliphate” and renamed ISIS the “Islamic State.” Only days later, from the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, al-Baghdadi delivered a Friday sermon in which he declared himself caliph of the newly-established caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Is ISIS Still a Threat?
“We have defeated ISIS (Islamic State in Syria), my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
In December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered “a full, rapid withdrawal” of over 2,000 American troops from Syria, a move that shocked many who still view ISIS as a threat. Soon after, President Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS (Islamic State in Syria), my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders followed up President Trump’s controversial statement by saying that “victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign . . . . Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” Sanders added. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
President Trump’s claim that the jihadist militant group had been defeated in Syria, and Vice President Mike Pence’s similar statement delivered within an hour of the ISIS bombing on January 16 of a restaurant frequented by American troops in Manbij, contradict the position of Washington’s closest allies. British Junior Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood rejected President Trump’s claim and asserted that ISIS “has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.” U.S. intelligence agencies also support Ellwood’s assessment.
In October 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) established Operation Inherent Resolve, a combined joint task force with the mission of working with regional partners to defeat ISIS militarily. U.S. Intelligence estimated that the group had around 33,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria at its peak in 2015.
Over the past four years, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes in the two Middle Eastern countries and spent $14.3 billion fighting ISIS. Nevertheless, DoD estimates that there “are still anywhere from 28,600 to 31,600 IS fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
While it may seem that the U.S.-led coalition has not been able to erode ISIS’s power and influence in the region, this is not the case. The militant group’s territory—the so-called “caliphate”—has been greatly diminished. Several years ago, the militant group “controlled a swath of territory roughly the size of Great Britain” and several important cities in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul and Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate.
Since then, the militant group has lost more than 95 percent of the territory it claimed in 2014 and has been forced back to where it all began: a small area along the Euphrates River on the border between Iraq and Syria.
Since then, the militant group has lost more than 95 percent of the territory it claimed in 2014 and has been forced back to where it all began: a small area along the Euphrates River on the border between Iraq and Syria. This has left the group’s leaders and fighters scattered without a safe haven to plan, train their forces, and launch the military offensives needed to maintain current territories or recapture lost ones.
Until recently, the greatest threats to ISIS’s survival have been the ongoing attempts to eliminate al-Baghdadi and his jihadi fighters. However, President Trump’s recent announcement of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria could be the impetus that al-Baghdadi needs to re-energize his forces’ morale and prompt the resurgence of an even more dangerous ISIS.