When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the reins of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, few had heard of the organization or its new leader, then an austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses and no known aptitude for fighting and killing.
But four years later, Baghdadi had helped transform his failing movement into one of the most notorious, vicious and – for a time – successful terrorist groups of modern times. Under his guidance, it would burst into the public consciousness as the Islamic State, an organization that would seize control of entire cities in Iraq and Syria and become a byword for shocking brutality.
He died Oct. 26 in northwestern Syria during a raid conducted by Special Operations forces, President Donald Trump said in a Sunday morning news conference at the White House. Baghdadi was 48 and had run into a “dead-end tunnel” before he activated his suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children, Trump said.
“Baghdadi was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way – as a coward, running and crying,” the president added.
The man at the helm of the Islamic State was a shadowy presence, appearing in public only a handful of times and rarely allowing his own voice to be heard, even as the group’s self-described caliphate was beaten back and finally destroyed. During his tenure, the Islamic State would come to mirror its leader: a messianic figure drawn to the harshest interpretations of Islamic texts and seized with the conviction that all dissenters should be put to death.
Yet, despite the group’s extremist views and vicious tactics, Baghdadi maintained a canny pragmatism as leader, melding a fractious mix of radical Islamist militants and former Iraqi Baathists and army officers into a powerful military force capable of overrunning cities and defeating Iraqi divisions in battle. It was this combination of extremist ideology and practical military experience that enabled the group to seize and hold territory that would form the basis of a declared Islamic caliphate.
“He was the guy who could build bridges between the foreign fighters and local Iraqis,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam and author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” a 2015 history of the Islamic State, which is also called ISIS. “His ability to move between these two factions helped his rise to become caliph and then allowed him to stay on top.”
Baghdadi also embraced a kind of extreme brutality that would become the group’s special trademark. While his predecessors gained notoriety with videotaped beheadings and bombings of school playgrounds, Baghdadi reveled in ghoulish displays of violence, often as the subject of elaborately produced videos. His followers carried out mass crucifixions, turned female captives into sex slaves and gleefully executed prisoners by stoning, hacking or burning them alive – always with Baghdadi’s implicit blessing.
But his image among his followers took a pounding as a U.S.-led military coalition began driving the Islamic State from its strongholds, beginning in western Iraq in 2015 and continuing in a relentless string of defeats that included the fall of the group’s Iraqi and Syrian capitals in 2017 and 2018. In March 2019, the last square-mile patch of the once-vast caliphate was destroyed by Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. warplanes. Through it all, Baghdadi remained largely invisible, drawing criticism from within his own organization for being remote and ineffective as a leader.
After the caliphate’s collapse, he appeared twice in video messages, insisting that the Islamic State was rebuilding itself as an underground insurgency and vowing to fight on. The group – which Pentagon officials estimate still commands between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters – has stepped up its low-grade guerrilla war against Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish targets in recent months.
Baghdadi’s most recently released video statement, from September, urged followers to target prisons in parts of Kurdish-held Syria where thousands of militants are being held.
“The prisons, the prisons, oh soldiers of the caliphate,” he said. “Your brothers and sisters – do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them.”
The man who would become the founding leader of the world’s most brutal terrorist group spent his early adult years as an obscure academic, aiming for a quiet life as a professor of Islamic law. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 upended his plans and launched him on a course toward insurgency, prison and violent jihad.
He was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri in the central Iraqi city of Samarra on July 28, 1971. He grew up in a devout Sunni Muslim family that included several clerics and claimed to descend from the Prophet Muhammad. That assertion later proved vital to Baghdadi’s efforts to anoint himself as “caliph,” or leader of the Islamic caliphate.
From his teens, he was fascinated with Islamic history and the intricacies of Islamic law. Acquaintances would remember him as a shy, nearsighted youth who liked soccer but preferred to spend his free time at the local mosque.
“He always had religious or other books attached on the back of his bike,” Tariq Hameed, an acquaintance from the same lower-middle-class neighborhood, told a Newsweek interviewer in 2014. The young Ibrahim disdained the Western clothes popular with Samarra’s young men, preferring the traditional prayer cap, beard and white dishdasha robe of the religiously devout, neighbors said.
He graduated from the University of Baghdad in 1996 and received a master’s degree in Koranic recitation from the Saddam University for Islamic Studies in 1999. Immersing himself in the arcane world of 7th-century religious codes, he grew increasingly conservative. Acquaintances remembered how the college-age Baghdadi took offense at the sight of men and women dancing in the same room during wedding celebrations.
By 2003, at age 31, he was well on his way to a doctorate and a shot at a full professorship. But after U.S. troops invaded Iraq that year, he signed up with a local resistance movement, explaining afterward that he did so as a religious duty. It would take four more years, until 2007, before he returned to school to defend his dissertation, also in Koranic recitation.
He was arrested in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004 and, in a fateful turn, landed at the notorious and now-defunct Camp Bucca prison. The vast, U.S.-run detention facility warehoused nearly 26,000 Iraqi men at a time in communal tents, and U.S. military officials later acknowledged it served at times as a recruitment and training center for militants.
“Extremists mingled with moderates in every compound,” Vasilios Tasikas, who served at the time as a Coast Guard lieutenant commander in charge of legal operations at the prison, wrote in a 2009 essay in the Military Review. Over time, he wrote, the mixing of hardened militants and Iraqi civilians “fueled the insurgency inside the wire.”
Baghdadi, as he began to call himself, forged a number of important alliances in the camp, befriending several members of the terrorist network run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who founded al-Qaida in Iraq, the notoriously brutal group known for beheading hostages and attacking relief organizations and Shiite mosques and schools.
After he was released by the prison’s U.S. overseers in late 2004, Baghdadi became a Zarqawi disciple, gradually rising through the organization to become a religious instructor and adviser to local terrorist cells in Iraq’s Anbar province.
In 2006, U.S. forces struck major blows against al-Qaida in Iraq, killing Zarqawi and wiping out entire branches of the group’s senior leadership chart. By 2008, U.S. intelligence officials viewed the organization as all but defeated. Baghdadi managed to avoid capture and, by 2010, he had risen to the No. 3 position – senior spiritual adviser.
When Iraqi and U.S. troops killed the group’s top two commanders that year, Baghdadi was thrust suddenly into the No. 1 leadership position as the head of a rebranded, but badly weakened, organization that had begun to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq.
Baghdadi’s backers in his new role included a number of former officers of Saddam Hussein’s vanquished army – Sunni colonels and majors who had initially allied themselves with Zarqawi had moved to assert Iraqi control over the group after his death. To them, Baghdadi might have seemed an ideal figurehead: an Iraqi religious scholar with ancestral lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, perfect credentials for a future head of a restored Islamic state, or caliphate, a kind of theocratic Muslim empire that has not existed since the time of the Ottomans.
In reality, even they understood that the “state” was a fiction.
“Where is this Islamic State of Iraq that you’re talking about?” one of the leader’s wives complained, according to documents from a 2010 Iraqi court case. “We’re living in a desert!”
Events elsewhere in the Middle East provided Baghdadi’s group with an unexpected opportunity. Beginning in late 2010 and continuing through 2011, the Arab Spring movement toppled leaders and sparked a succession of conflicts, including what became the vicious, sectarian-tinged civil war in Syria. For Baghdadi, the war on Iraq’s western border offered the very things his group needed most: a new cause, and a fresh and nearly boundless source of recruits and arms.
Baghdadi dispatched trusted followers to Syria in late 2011 to form an Islamist rebel group called Jabhat al-Nusra. But in 2013, when the new offshoot proved difficult to control, he plunged into the war himself.
He dispatched scores of fighters into Syria and rebranded his organization yet again, calling it the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the latter term being the ancient name for the region that encompasses Syria and most of the Levant. Popularly the group would be known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, or in English, ISIS or ISIL. Later the name would be shortened to simply the Islamic State.
Feuding would continue for years between Baghdadi’s men and Jabhat al-Nusra, which eventually aligned with al-Qaida. The Islamic State emerged as the most effective fighting force on the rebel side, capturing the eastern city of Raqqa and challenging other rebel groups for dominance across a swath of villages along the Euphrates River.
There, Baghdadi imposed strict Islamic law on local inhabitants, enforcing the rules with public floggings, amputations and executions, while his fighters consolidated their holdings and prepared for future expansion across Syria and Iraq.
Baghdadi still was in command a year later, when the Islamic State’s forces roared into Iraq in late spring 2014, routing poorly led, demoralized Iraqi army divisions in a string of stunning defeats across the west and north.
By that June, his Islamist militant army controlled a third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. His holdings included not just real estate but oil fields, military bases, universities and hundreds of millions of dollars in cash. Almost overnight, the Islamic State was transformed into the wealthiest and best-armed terrorist group of all time.
A triumphant Baghdadi marched into one of Mosul’s oldest mosques to declare the start of a new Islamic caliphate, with himself as leader. Allowing cameras to record his movements, the bearded, slightly pudgy cleric climbed to the mosque’s minbar, or pulpit, to congratulate his followers on the start of what he described as a new chapter in human history.
“You will conquer Rome and own the world,” he said.
Baghdadi’s victories were short-lived. The group’s shocking displays of violence, combined with a bloody terror campaign against Western cities, helped to deepen international resolve to drive the Islamic State from its stronghold, depriving it of a sanctuary and a central element of its propaganda.
The U.S.-led military coalition launched in 2014 and grew to include 81 countries, from the Middle East to Europe to Asia. With Iraqi, Kurdish and Arab fighters at the lead, the coalition began slowly liberating Iraqi and Syrian cities as U.S. drones picked off a steady succession of Islamic State leaders.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces retook the group’s Iraqi capital of Mosul in a campaign that ran from 2015 to early 2017. The Islamic State’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, was liberated in 2017, and the caliphate’s final outpost at Baghouz, Syria, was recaptured in March.
From the group’s high-water mark to its collapse, its leader remained a phantom presence. Little is publicly known about what he did, how he contributed or where he lived. Baghdadi likewise kept his family and social life carefully hidden. He married at least twice, possibly three times, and had at least six children.
Later, former hostages would reveal that Baghdadi also kept a number of personal sex slaves during his years as the Islamic State’s leader, including American hostage Kayla Mueller, who was later killed, and a number of captured Yazidi women. U.S. officials corroborated the accounts.
Terrorism experts say his avoidance of the spotlight was probably deliberate and strategic. Unlike his more charismatic predecessor Zarqawi, whose gun-toting image made him an icon within the militant community, Baghdadi seemed to have preferred to keep the focus on the caliphate itself, the mythical Islamic utopia he believed he was creating.
It was also a way to ensure that the terrorist group could survive the loss of its leader. On the day Baghdadi’s death was announced, pro-Islamic State social media forums posted reports of the day’s latest terrorist attacks and messages of encouragement to followers.
“Al-Baghdadi, although influential, is but one person,” said a writer posting Sunday in one such forum. “The term ‘caliphate’ that ISIS promotes is not a temporary idea whereby if one person died, the whole term or ideology ends.”
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