For all his power and newfound notoriety, there are only two authenticated photos of a man now called the world’s “most powerful jihadi leader.” One shows a serious man with an olive complexion and round countenance. The other, released by the Iraqi government in January, depicts an unsmiling bearded figure in a black suit. The image is cracked and blurry, as though someone had taken a picture of a picture.
The murkiness of the photo of the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is appropriate. Though he’s “the world’s most dangerous man” to Time magazine and the “the new bin Laden” to Le Monde, the man who orchestrated the sacking of northern Iraq’s largest city and today controls a nation-size swath of land, is a relatively unknown and enigmatic figure.
Much of what is known of Baghdadi’s history is unconfirmed, while other information is disputed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to discern where fact meets Baghdadi’s rising myth.
Several facts, however, are clear: Baghdadi leads the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He is a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser and a ruthless killer. The United States has a $10 million bounty on his head. He has thrown off the yoke of al-Qaeda command and just took his biggest prize yet in Mosul, an oil hub that sits at the vital intersection of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. And in just one year of grisly killing, he has in all likelihood surpassed even al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in international clout and prestige among Islamist militants.
“The true heir to Osama bin Laden may be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” wrote The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. He is “more violent, more virulent, more anti-American,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told the columnist, while the cautious and uncharismatic Zawahiri “is not coping well.” In fact, Baghdadi is now recruiting fighters from other Zawahiri affiliates, including al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch and the Somalia-based al-Shabab.
“For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn’t really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos,” Richard Barrett, a former counterterrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service, told Agence France-Presse last week. “Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount — he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria…. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”
Born a Sunni in 1971 in Samarra with the name Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, he claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. According to a widely cited biography released by jihadists, “he is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and professors of Arabic language, rhetoric and logic.” The biography and Arabic-language accounts claim he obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad — which is presumably why several of his many aliases include the title “Dr.”
Holding degrees in Islamic studies and history, he is believed to have been an Islamic preacher around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The chaos of those months drove the 30-something into militancy, and he formed an armed group in eastern Iraq, one that reportedly never rose out of obscurity.
The opacity of his background, analysts say, suggests a broader truth of rising militant Islamists. “The mystery surrounding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — at the level of his personality, his movements, or even his relatives, his family, and those close to him — came as a result of what happened to previous leaders, who were killed after their movements were detected,” wrote Mushreq Abbas in al-Monitor. He is the “invisible jihadist,” according to Le Monde.
But the narrative solidifies in 2005, when he was captured by American forces and spent the next four years a prisoner in the Bucca Camp in southern Iraq. It was from his time there that the first known picture of Baghdadi emerged. And it’s also there, reports Al-Monitor, that he possibly met and trained with key al-Qaeda fighters.
He gained enough respect that by 2010, after several leaders of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq were killed, he assumed control of it. At that time, the power of the Islamist militancy in Iraq was at its lowest ebb, and the number of killings had plunged. The Sunni rebellion, which it had once spearheaded, was on the verge of collapse.
But then Syria happened. The civil war there, which left a vacuum of authority in large tracts of the country, fueled a resurgence of the group. The upheaval gave rise to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Over the following years, as many as 12,000 militant Islamists — 3,000 of whom were from Western countries — flocked to the region to fight, according to the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy.
But even then, Baghdadi, today respected among militants as a battlefield tactician, maintained his anonymity. It is said that no one knows where he is. And reports say that in the rare istances he meets a prisoner, he wears a mask.
The rise of ISIS under his stewardship has been less about a cult of personality than what one expert told AFP signaled a “transnational ideology.” This became especially clear after Baghdadi cast off al-Qaeda’s leadership in June 2013. “I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,” Baghdadi told al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri, who had tried to bring the rogue commander back into line.
Since, the power of Baghdadi, who some say may soon establish himself as emir of a new Islamic state, has only grown. As has that of ISIS.
“ISIS’s rise at the expense of Zawahiri’s movement signals that a new, more dangerous hybrid based on state development by wrecking everything in its path is emerging from the Syrian terrorist incubator,” wrote Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Ultimately, ISIS seeks to create an Islamic state from where they would launch a global holy war. Perhaps that war is now beginning as Baghdadi’s ISIS eclipses Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda.”