BAGHDAD — When American forces raided a home near Fallujah during the turbulent 2004 offensive against the Iraqi Sunni insurgency, they got the hard-core militants they had been looking for. They also picked up an apparent hanger-on, an Iraqi man in his early 30s whom they knew nothing about.
The Americans duly registered his name as they processed him and the others at the Camp Bucca detention center: Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry.
That once-peripheral figure has become known to the world now as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, and the architect of its violent campaign to redraw the map of the Middle East.
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS,” he said, using a former abbreviation of the Islamic State group.
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At every turn, Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after Islamic State military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Baghdadi has seemed to revel in the fight, promising that the group would soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States.
Still, when he first latched on to al-Qaida, in the early years of the U.S. occupation, it was not as a fighter, but rather as a religious figure. He has since declared himself caliph of the Islamic world, and pressed a violent campaign to root out religious minorities, like Shiites and Yazidis, that has brought condemnation even from al-Qaida leaders.
Baghdadi, in his early 40s, is said to have a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad, and was a mosque preacher in his hometown, Samarra. He claims to trace his ancestry to the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Pentagon says that Baghdadi, after being arrested in Fallujah in early 2004, was released that December with a large group of other prisoners deemed low level. But Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who has researched Baghdadi’s life, sometimes on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, said that Baghdadi had spent five years in an American detention facility where, like many Islamic State fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalized.
Hashimi said that Baghdadi grew up in a poor family in a farming village near Samarra, and that his family was Sufi — a strain of Islam known for tolerance. He said Baghdadi came to Baghdad in the early 1990s, and over time became more radical.
Early in the insurgency, he gravitated toward a new jihadi group led by the flamboyant Jordanian militant operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Though Zarqawi’s group, al-Qaida in Iraq, began as a mostly Iraqi insurgent organization, it claimed allegiance to the global Qaida leadership, and over the years brought in more and more foreign leadership figures.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote that Baghdadi had spent several years in Afghanistan, working alongside Zarqawi. But some officials say the American intelligence community does not believe Baghdadi has ever set foot outside the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria, and that he was never particularly close to Zarqawi.
The American operation that killed Zarqawi in 2006 was a huge blow to the organization’s leadership. As the Americans were winding down their war in Iraq, they focused on trying to wipe out al-Qaida in Iraq’s remaining leadership. In April 2010, a joint operation by Iraqi and American forces made the biggest strike against the group in years, killing its top two figures near Tikrit.
A month later, the group issued a statement announcing new leadership, and Baghdadi was at the top of the list. The Western intelligence community scrambled for information.
“Any idea who these guys are?” wrote an analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence company that then worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, in an email that has since been released by WikiLeaks.
In June 2010, Stratfor published a report that stated, “the militant organization’s future for success looks bleak.”
Still, the report said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq, then an alternative name for al-Qaida in Iraq, “I.S.I.’s intent to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq has not diminished.”
The Sunni tribes of eastern Syria and Iraq’s Anbar and Ninevah provinces have long had ties that run deeper than national boundaries, and the Islamic State group was built on those relationships. Accordingly, as the group’s fortunes waned in Iraq, it found a new opportunity in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
As more moderate Syrian rebel groups were beaten down by the Syrian security forces and their allies, the Islamic State group increasingly took control of the fight, in part on the strength of weapons and funding from its operations in Iraq and from jihadist supporters in the Arab world.
Analysts and Iraqi intelligence officers believe that after Baghdadi took over the organization he appointed a former Saddam-era officer, a man known as Hajji Bakr, as his military commander, overseeing operations and a military council that included three other officers of the former regime’s security forces.
Hajji Bakr was believed to have been killed last year in Syria. Analysts believe that he and at least two of the three other men on the military council were held at various times by the Americans at Camp Bucca.
Baghdadi has been criticized by some in the wider jihadi community for his reliance on former Baathists. But for many, Baghdadi’s successes have trumped these critiques.
“He has credibility because he runs half of Iraq and half of Syria,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation.
While the group’s capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, appeared to catch the U.S. intelligence community and the Iraqi government by surprise, Baghdadi’s mafia-like operations in the city had long been crucial to his strategy of establishing the Islamic caliphate.
His group earned an estimated $12 million a month, according to U.S. officials, from extortion schemes in Mosul, which it used to finance operations in Syria. Before June, the Islamic State group controlled neighborhoods by night, collecting money and slipping in to the countryside by day.
The group is almost entirely self-financing, through its seizure of oil fields, extortion and tax collection in the territories it controls. Recently in Hawija, a village near Kirkuk, the group demanded that all former soldiers or police officers pay an $850 “repentance fine.”
Though he has captured territory through brutal means, Baghdadi has also taken practical steps at state-building, and even shown a lighter side. In Mosul, the Islamic State has held a “fun day” for kids, distributed gifts and food during Eid al-Fitr, held Quran recitation competitions and started bus services and opened schools.
Baghdadi appears to be drawing on a famous jihadi text that has long inspired al-Qaida: “The Management of Savagery,” written by a Saudi named Abu Bakr Naji.
William McCants, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who in 2005, as a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, translated the book in to English, once described it as “the seven highly effective habits of jihadi leaders.”