As with so much of contemporary radical Islam, the roots of the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a raid by US special forces in the last rebel redoubt of Idlib province in north-west Syria on 26 October, are to be found in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Back then, he fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and was briefly detained by the US in Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison near the Kuwaiti border.
Although Baghdadi’s predecessors had all sworn an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leadership, they regularly defied the central command and control structure of the movement. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 and is known to have had a difficult relationship with the central command because of his brutality and sectarianism. He stretched the group thin by prioritising a war against Iraq’s Shia community ahead of the Western coalition forces. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who was then al-Qaeda’s second in command, wrote to Zarqawi and told him to refocus his efforts on fighting British and American troops. Zarqawi ignored this, explaining that he was closer to the conflict and that al-Qaeda’s central leadership could not appreciate the realities he faced on the ground.
Two aspects of that approach would have a lasting effect on Baghdadi. The first was the defiance of al-Qaeda’s core leadership and the second was the focus on sectarian conflict as the main priority for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Six months before Zarqawi’s death (he was killed in a US air strike in 2006) al-Qaeda joined something called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella movement that aimed to unite disparate Sunni groups that were fighting against the Western coalition. The aim was to counteract US-led efforts to win the support of Sunni tribes as part of its counter-insurgency strategy.
Al-Qaeda was one of several groups within the MSC but did not take the leadership because it wanted to avoid the movement being portrayed as an al-Qaeda front (although, in many respects, this is what it was). The MSC later declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which served as the forerunner to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The significance of all this resides in the fact there were now three simultaneous structures in existence: al-Qaeda, the MSC and the ISI. After Zarqawi was killed his associates had to navigate the uneven relationships between these groups where, for example, the leader of al-Qaeda might occupy different, subordinate positions within the MSC and Isis.
None of this mattered too much until 2010, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended to the leadership. He quietly consolidated all the existing structures under his sole leadership, leaving the exact nature of his relationship with al-Qaeda’s central command unclear. This eventually came to a head with the onset of the Syrian uprising. As the country slipped into increasing lawlessness and the revolution gave way to an armed resistance, Baghdadi sent his members of Syrian origin into battle, which they did under the name Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra won early plaudits for its fighting prowess and relative lack of corruption (compared to some branches of the Free Syrian Army).
When ISI eventually entered Syria in 2013 and rebranded as Isis, Baghdadi revealed the roots of Nusra’s genesis and declared that he was the overall leader of the movement. Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, now led by Zawahiri, demanded that Baghdadi come to heel. Zawahiri told Baghdadi to concentrate his efforts on Iraq and to leave Syria to Nusra.
What followed was a series of extraordinary events that have splintered and fragmented the nature of Salafi-jihadism. And it would offer an insight into the way he intended to lead Isis as it tightened its grip across parts of Syria and Iraq.
Baghdadi insisted that he never pledged allegiance to Zawahiri and that he was his own man. Isis was independent of al-Qaeda and Nusra was a satellite operation created by him. He ordered Nusra to disband and merge with his fighters, who were occupying parts of eastern Syria. Meanwhile, Zawahiri was delivered a humiliating ultimatum. He was told that if he wanted a relationship with Baghdadi it would have to be on the same terms as the one he had with the Taliban’s former leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who allowed al-Qaeda to operate from his territory.
What Baghdadi’s “caliphate” achieved was remarkable: even without a large-scale al-Qaeda-style attack on American soil, he presided over a group that created a far greater sense of fear across the West. That trepidation was especially acute in Europe, particularly in Belgium and France, where devastating attacks fuelled tensions across the continent.
Baghdadi’s movement revived slavery and took Yazidi women as sex slaves, selling them in markets. Yazidi men were executed. Homosexuals were thrown from buildings while military opponents were burned alive. Even al-Qaeda and leading jihadi theorists were compelled to condemn some of Baghdadi’s most extreme acts. None of it mattered. He dismissed all criticism and appeared to revel in the notoriety. He was one of the world’s most brutal terrorists and he led a movement whose influence eclipsed even that of al-Qaeda.
This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone