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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: The Man Behind the Islamic State

This file image made from video posted on a militant website in July 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
This file image made from video posted on a militant website in July 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014 as Muslim fundamentalist religious teacher Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was recorded unveiling the Islamic State "Caliphate" in Mosul, Iraq.

Since then, with the help of U.S. special forces, IS has lost ground in both Iraq and Syria. A joint U.S.- supported military offensive began Monday on Mosul, where Baghdadi made his famed announcement over two years ago and could be, some reports suggest, in hiding.

Reports too of Baghdadi's death have come and gone without verification. The most recent report was that he is seriously ill, having been poisoned during a meal earlier this month in Iraq.

This is an edited and updated version of the original VOA article by Cecily Hilleary.

To the United States, 45-year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly referred to as ISIS or IS) 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 in early July 2014, 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 left 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.

Only a few analysts have studied Baghdadi’s life.

When he announced the caliphate, almost nothing was known about him outside of what jihadists post on the Internet (and those claims were difficult at best to verify) In announcing the new caliphate in an audio message, IS 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.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, newly-named "Caliph" of the Islamic State, is shown in a U.S. State Department wanted poster.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, newly-named "Caliph" of the Islamic State, is shown in a U.S. State Department wanted poster.

The former commanding officer at Camp Bucca, the former U.S. detention facility near Umm Qasr, Iraq, told The Daily Beast that he recognized Baghdadi as the man in a photo released earlier this week by the Iraq government.

Power grab

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 civil war in Syria erupted, 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. In 2013, Baghdadi created ISIL, which al-Qaida has since disavowed.

A ’perfect' leader

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.”

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 resonates, 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 Baghdadi 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 IS could cause big trouble for Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other neighbors.

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 IS’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.

IS 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.

Watch related VOA report: Top American officials declare IS severely weakened