He may have been the world’s most wanted terrorist and the supremo of global jihad, but Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was all but a mythical figure to those hunting him.
Known as ‘The Invisible Sheikh’ – by virtue of the mask he wore to address his commanders – he nurtured the lowest of profiles, eschewing the showmanship of fellow jihadi leaders who paid the price by making themselves vulnerable to tracking by intelligence services.
Indeed, he made only two video appearances during his lifetime – until yesterday, that is, when US Special Forces apparently recorded him blowing himself up in northwestern Syria.
For five years, Al-Baghdadi – a nom de guerre, his real name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri – led the most barbaric terrorist outfit the modern world has known.
Caliphate leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his own suicide vest during the targeted raid on his lair in Syria’s Idlib province and killed three of his children in the blast
He came to global attention in 2014 when a YouTube video showed him in the pulpit of the Nouri mosque in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which his IS foot- soldiers had just conquered.
Dressed in a black turban and flowing black gown, he delivered a sermon urging Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to the new caliphate – an Islamic state led by a caliph, a successor to the Prophet Muhammad who has absolute political and religious power – and to flock to protect its newly conquered territory.
Al-Baghdadi’s Iraqi tribe claimed descent from the Prophet, but few had heard of him before he brazenly declared himself ruler of all Muslims.
Born in 1971 to a middle-class family in the Iraqi city of Samarra, Al-Baghdadi always saw his destiny as an important religious leader. As a youth he was a keen footballer, but known for his piety. His family nickname was ‘the Believer’ because he’d scold those who failed to observe religious practices correctly.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul. Known as ‘The Invisible Sheikh’ – by virtue of the mask he wore to address his commanders
He moved to Baghdad to study, graduating in Koranic studies and then teaching at a mosque. But when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, he joined the violent insurrection. A year later, US forces arrested him in Fallujah, but he was considered a low-level threat and incarcerated for only ten months.
Crucially, however, he spent time in the hellish Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca – known as the Jihad University – detention facilities where he befriended battle-hardened jihadis.
Following his release, Al-Baghdadi joined the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda which later became Islamic State of Iraq.
In 2010, he re-emerged as its leader, and his fighters crossed into Syria to take advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war. Islamic State in Iraq thus morphed into Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – and ISIL (later IS) was born.
By 2015, this ruthless battlefield tactician was ruling over a caliphate spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was the size of Britain, with almost 8 million people under his control, and an annual budget of more than $1billion – generated through the sale of oil from the facilities IS controlled, but also from extortion and kidnapping.
His fanatical militia, who flocked to the caliphate from all over the world, numbered at least 30,000, although some estimates put their number at the caliphate’s peak as at least double or even treble that.
During its reign of terror, IS carried out unspeakable acts of barbarity in the name of a perverted holy war. Its ultimate, apocalyptic goal was to rid the world of anyone – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – who refused to submit to its extremist interpretation of Islam.
Thousands of innocents were lined up on their knees and ritually slaughtered by having their throats slit. As ‘infidels’, Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims were singled out for slaughter, the ghastly spectacle was recorded in sickeningly
professional propaganda videos that shocked the world.
IS relished its reputation for brutality to Western hostages in particular, including Britons David Haines, an aid worker, and Alan Henning, a Salford taxi driver who had gone to Syria to help deliver aid. Countless others were burned or buried alive, or drowned, while suspected homosexuals were thrown from the top of buildings, and thousands of women and girls were taken as sex slaves.
In Iraq, more than 200 mass graves containing IS victims have been found containing between 6,000 and 12,000 bodies. Still more mass graves continue to be discovered in Syria.
Donald Trump addressed the nation Sunday morning, confirming that the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ‘died like a dog’
At the same time, IS terrorists have carried out dozens of attacks around the world, killing and maiming thousands.
No wonder Donald Trump was triumphant yesterday – ‘he died like a dog’ – as he announced Al-Baghdadi’s death. There have been numerous false reports of his death since the defeat of IS in 2017, but the President has a particular reason to be thrilled.
Trump is facing stinging criticism domestically and internationally that his partial withdrawal of US troops in Syria this month has left the Kurds – America’s allies in the fight against IS – exposed and created a vacuum which might allow IS to re-emerge.
The group still has thousands of armed supporters in the area. IS sleeper cells have already launched several attacks.
Al-Baghdadi’s death will bolster Trump’s claim that under his watch IS will not be allowed to regain strength and threaten American interests. But the President would be foolish to be too optimistic. The parallels between the US raids that killed Al-Baghdadi and that which killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 are striking – and ominous.
Many terrorism experts argue that Al Qaeda is an even more dangerous enemy today, with thousands of battle-hardened members in South Asia, Africa and the West. Meanwhile, Islamic State is active in at least 18 countries, claiming to have carried out more than 1,800 attacks in the first half of this year alone. Al-Baghdadi is gone and the dream of the caliphate is over – but his death has not dealt a fatal blow.
- John R Bradley is the author of After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts