How Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the world’s most feared terrorist leader

What the Isis head's “caliphate” achieved was as remarkable as it was horrifying. 

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The roots of the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a raid by US special forces on the last rebel redoubt of Idlib province in north-west Syria on 27 October, are to be found - as is so much of contemporary radical Islam - in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Back then, he fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and was briefly detained, with other future Isis leaders, in Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison facility run by the US near the Kuwaiti border. While he is thought to have been born in northern Iraq in 1971, the third of four sons, and to have lived quietly as an unexceptional religious scholar, Baghdadi's background is hazy; even his real name is subject to conflicting explanations. This uncertainty would become an asset in the years to come. 

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. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 and was known to have 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 fighting 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 (in a US air strike in 2006), al-Qaeda joined an organisation called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella movement that aimed to unite disparate Sunni groups who were fighting against the Western coalition. The aim was to counteract American-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 it did not take the leadership because it wanted to avoid the movement being portrayed as an al-Qaeda front (although, in many respects, that 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 is that 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 April 2010, when Baghdadi ascended to the leadership of the ISI. He quietly consolidated all of the existing structures under his sole leadership, leaving the exact nature of his relationship with al-Qaeda’s central leadership unclear. This eventually came to a head with the onset of the Syrian uprising. As the country slipped into lawlessness and the revolution gave way to an armed resistance, Baghdadi sent members of Syrian origin into battle, which they did under the name of the Al-Nusra Front or 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 itself as Isis, Baghdadi revealed the roots of Nusra’s genesis and declared himself the overall leader of the movement. Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, now led by Zawahiri, demanded that Baghdadi come to heel. He told Baghdadi to concentrate his efforts on Iraq and to leave Syria to Nusra.

What followed was a series of extraordinary events that fragmented Salafi-jihadism, and offered an insight into the way Baghdadi intended to lead Isis as it tightened its grip across parts of Syria and Iraq. feBaghdadi insisted that he had 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 Baghdadi. He ordered Nusra to disband and merge with his fighters, who were occupying parts of eastern Syria. Meanwhile, Zawahiri was handed 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. After the capture of Mosul in June 2014, Baghdadi proclaimed himself the caliph, or leader, of a new proto-state.

What Baghdadi’s “caliphate” achieved was as remarkable as it was horrifying. Even without a large-scale, al-Qaeda-style attack on American soil, he presided over a group that subjugated millions of people and created a far greater sense of fear across the West, especially in Europe and particularly in Belgium and France, where devastating terrorist attacks fuelled social 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, and military opponents were burned alive. Leading jihadi theorists and even al-Qaeda itself 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. Eventually his movement's influence eclipsed even that of al-Qaeda. His final victims were three small children, possibly his own, who died in the explosion caused by his suicide vest.

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone