Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Leader of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Why is he in the news? He leads the militant group responsible for the execution of U.S. journalist James Foley. After the group’s military successes (it now controls a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria) and brutal massacres of minorities, President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes in Iraq earlier this month. Foley’s execution was said to be retaliation for those strikes.
What do we know about him? Around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he became radicalized. In 2004 or 2005, he was captured by U.S. forces but was deemed low level and later released. By 2010, after several leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq were killed, he assumed control.
Why was he released? “He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” a Pentagon official told The New York Times. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
How did he gain power? The civil war in Syria fueled a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and, now, the Islamic State. As many as 10,000 militants have flocked to the region to fight for the group. In 2013, Baghdadi cast off al-Qaeda’s leadership, and his power has only grown.
Of note: The U.S. is said to have a $10 million bounty on his head.