To the United States, 43-year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a “specially designated global terrorist” with a $10 million bounty on his head.
To his followers, he is Caliph Ibrahim, the new leader of a global Muslim empire, the Islamic State.
In an unannounced statement released to the media July 1, Baghdadi widely condemned the West and summoned all Muslims, especially those with military, medical, administrative and public service experience, to emigrate to the caliphate to “take up arms … and fight, fight!”
Baghdadi leaves no doubt that he has big plans beyond Iraq and Syria: “For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” the statement reads.
The masked sheikh?
He is said to be so protective of his identity that when he consults with his commanders, he wears a mask, though it’s not clear whether this is fact or folklore.
Very little is known about Baghdadi, outside of what jihadists post on the Internet, and few of their claims can be verified. In announcing the new caliphate in an audio message [safe link] Sunday, ISIL spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani revealed what he claimed is Baghdadi’s real name: Ibrahim bin Awad bin Ibrahim al-Badri Al-Radawi Al-Husseini Al-Samarra.
“But names and titles can be made up or added on,” said Iraqi political analyst and commentator Omar Al-Nidawi. “People can have tribal names, nicknames or other aliases that are even related to the town they live in, the town they come from or a former profession. So one person can have more than one name.”
Baghdadi may or may not have been arrested and jailed by the U.S. in 2005.
“There have been at least two accounts,” said Nidawi. One suggests he was “in U.S. military custody and then transferred to Iraq authorities and released in 2009. But there is also another account that says there is no record that he was ever captured.”
The former commanding officer at Camp Bucca, the former U.S. detention facility near Umm Qasr, Iraq, recently told The Daily Beast that he recognized Baghdadi as the man in a photo released earlier this week by the Iraq government.
Climb to power
In April 2010, the U.S. military killed the leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The group named Abu Bakr as its new leader.
In an online speech two years later, Baghdadi launched what he called a “Breaking the Walls” campaign in Iraq, according to the Institute for the Study of War aimed at freeing al-Qaida members imprisoned by U.S. forces and and expanding his territory in Iraq. True to his word, over the next year, he orchestrated a series of well-coordinated military operations, including the deadly attack on Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013 that freed hundreds of prisoners.
After the conflict in Syria broke out, Al Jazeera reports, Baghdadi sent a lieutenant over the border to form the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra Front to help topple President Bashar Al-Assad. Last year, Baghdadi created ISIL, which al-Qaida has since disavowed.
The 'perfect' candidate
To his followers, Baghdadi is perfect for the office of caliphate.
Sunni tradition holds that a caliph must be an adult male Muslim, knowledgeable in military strategy and brave in conflict. Ideally, he should also be educated in Islamic theology and Shariah, or Islamic law.
Baghdadi’s Internet biography says he was born into a religious family in the city of Samarra and holds a Ph.D. from the Islamic University in Baghdad. A former religious teacher, he is well-versed in Islamic theology, history, culture, science, genealogy, law and jurisprudence.
Biographers say he is a prominent Salafist looking to cleanse Islam of Shiites and convert all Muslims to the Sunni interpretation of Islam.
They credit him with military acumen, “eloquent speech and strong language, according to his biographers, as well as the calm, cleverness and courage of his predecessors, Abu Omar and Abu Ayyub.
Perhaps most significantly, Baghdadi claims to be descended from the Arabian desert tribe of Quraysh, says Tawfik Hamid, senior fellow and chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
“Quraysh is the tribe of the Prophet Mohamed,” Hamid said, “and there is a custom that says that the Caliph must be a Qurayshi. This gives him not just political but religious legitimacy.”
Gauging his appeal
The language Baghdadi uses draws on classical Islamic literary memes, invoking what Nidawi calls “an internal cleansing and an external fight.”
It’s a style that will resonate, especially to devout or disenfranchised youths, says Hamid, and he should know: As a student in Egypt, he was attracted to jihad and briefly joined the radical group Jamaat al-Islamiyya.
“Even if you have one percent – or one in a thousand Muslims in the world -- who is willing to see the return of the Islamic Caliphate, then you are saying that a million people could join him,” Hamid said. “The most vulnerable are the young Muslims who have no access to modern communication or the internet. They see the world only through the eyes of religion.”
Hamid believes ISIL poses a significant strategic threat to neighboring countries because of its military capabilities, an ideological following that’s attracting fighters from Europe and elsewhere, and cash looted during the campaign through Iraq.
In short, Hamid says ISIL could cause big trouble for Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other neighbors.
Lebanon at particular risk
The threat is real, but not necessarily immediate, says Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of the military security studies program at Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Eisenstadt said he suspects the militants “made faster progress than they expected, and as a result, it’s quite possible that they are overstretched. And keep in mind as well that they have a base of operations that spans two countries – eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.”
He believes that ISIL’s ultimate goal includes expanding into Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the first target may be Lebanon.
“The name of ISIL refers to ‘the Levant,’ and that is traditionally Greater Syria, which includes Lebanon, which was part of the caliphate of old,” he said.
ISIL regards Hezbollah as a major enemy because it actively supports the Assad regime in Syria and is backed by Iran.
“It makes sense for ISIL to try to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon, in order to lead to a security deterioration there and make it much more difficult for Hezbollah, if they were so inclined, to send fighters into Syria to backfill for the Iraqi Shiite militia who’ve been sent back to Iraq—or to Iraq,” Eisenstadt said.
His comments coincided with reports that the Islamic State had appointed Al-Monther al-Hassan to head operations in Lebanon.
Wait and see
All of this places Washington in a bind: If it intervenes militarily against ISIL, the U.S. risks being viewed by Sunnis as siding with Iran against a Sunni caliphate.
Eisenstadt supports what he calls Washington’s current “detachment.”
“If we provide air cover for the regime while they are engaged in killing Sunnis on the ground, we are complicit in that,” he said, “and it will make it impossible for us to achieve our desired end-state, a unified Iraq in which moderate Sunnis feel they have a role to play and assist with the war against the extremist Sunnis.
Hamid agrees on a “wait and see” approach.
And he sees some reason for hope.
There’s always the chance that Sunnis in Iraq are merely using ISIL to rid them of their prime minister, Hamid says. Maybe they will ultimately discover – as did Egyptians under deposed leader Mohamed Morsi – that the fundamentalist Islamic lifestyle isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.