He is regarded as one of the most powerful militants in the world, a former Islamist preacher who evolved into a global jihadist now threatening to rewrite the map of the Middle East.
Yet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, remains largely a mystery, even to his followers.
Unlike such figures as al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, only two photos are known to exist of al-Baghdadi, showing a trim-bearded man with thick eyebrows. Al-Baghdadi, whose fighters have seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, only releases audio messages. Even when he meets with Islamic State commanders, al-Baghdadi is said not to reveal himself.
During such sessions, several men whose faces are covered reportedly enter a room, listen to what is said and then leave. The commanders are told that “one of these was Baghdadi and he heard what you wanted and he will respond at a later time,” said Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, an opposition activist in Raqqa, Syria, where the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has established what it views as the capital of a burgeoning transnational Islamist caliphate.
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“No one deals with him except leaders at the highest level,” al-Raqqawi said.
Al-Baghdadi’s fighters have made brutality their calling card, executing detainees in public squares and even crucifying some victims. The current fighting brings him back to familiar turf. His path was shaped by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and included time in a U.S.-run prison.
Born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971, al-Baghdadi holds a doctorate in Islamic studies from the Islamic University in Baghdad and worked as a teacher and Sunni Muslim preacher before the invasion that toppled the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein, according to an unofficial biography that has circulated on jihadist websites. He reportedly has a penchant for poetry.
The name al-Baghdadi — his full name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Al Badri Al Samarri — signifies his ties to the Iraqi capital. He first fought the Americans and then the emerging Shiite-run Iraqi government as a member of the Mujahadeen Army, an Islamist force with nationalistic rather than global ambitions.
“He wasn’t this globalist jihadist going to Afghanistan, but he was recruited during the Iraq war,” said Aron Lund, an academic who has written for the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website. “The war essentially came to him.”
He was captured by the Americans in 2005 and was held at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca in sweltering southern Iraq for years, though it’s difficult to pinpoint the circumstances and timing of his release. It was in the camp, jihadists sources say, that he joined a nascent Iraqi branch of al-Qaida known as al-Qaida in Iraq founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a 2006 U.S. airstrike. By 2010, al-Baghdadi was free and after another al-Qaida in Iraq leader was slain, he was elected its leader.
Among the thousands of fighters spread across Syria and Iraq, many of them foreigners, al-Baghdadi is now referred to as the “emir of the believers,” a title first given to the Prophet Muhammad, said Somsam Al Islam, a fighter with a rival Islamist Syrian militant group, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.
The Islamic State was affiliated with al-Qaida until al-Baghdadi rebranded the franchise and went international by entering the fray in neighboring Syria in April 2013. Introduction of the Islamic State was made in customary al-Baghdadi fashion: a video consisting of the group’s black and white flag flapping over a strictly audio statement.
Al-Zawahiri unsuccessfully ordered the group to cease operations and return to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi refused and his forces violently seized control of large swaths of northern Syria.
While its leader remains secretive, the Islamic State has used social-media outlets such as Twitter and YouTube to recruit seasoned and first-time Sunni fighters from across the world, including North Africans, Europeans and a large group of Chechens. These fighters have been lured by recruitment videos portraying Syria as a showdown between Sunnis on one side and Shiites and Alawites on the other.
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 Islamic State 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.
The Islamic State “is like the latest iPhone version,” said Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “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.”
But can al-Baghdadi carve an Islamic emirate from Iraq’s Sunni heartland?
“We don’t want to wait and see,” Faily said.
In Syria, the Islamic State is at odds with most other opposition groups, including militant Islamists from the Nusra Front and the government of President Bashar Assad.
Al-Baghdadi’s success at shaping the Islamic State has allowed him to present himself as one of the most important of a new generation of Islamic militants, rivaling Bin Laden’s successor, al-Zawahiri, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
A decade after al-Baghdadi was reportedly under American detention, the U.S., which designated him a global terrorist in 2011, is offering a $10 million reward for information aiding in his capture or killing. The sum is second only to that offered for al-Zawahiri.