The man who would be caliph
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a man responsible for acts of violence that have made some in al-Qaeda baulk, has stunned observers by using the military momentum of Isis to declare himself leader of all Muslims
Self-elevated: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Photograph: AP Photo/Iraqi InteriorMinistry
An Isis militant in Raqqa. Photograph: Reuters/Stringer
He’s considered the new Osama bin Laden, the most prominent leader of Sunni Muslim Salafists and jihadis. In recent weeks, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stunned the world by adding conquests in northern Iraq to the territory he already controlled in Syria.
Now he’s changed identity again, demanding that Muslims recognise him as Caliph Ibrahim and that his movement, hitherto known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Isis, be called simply the Islamic State.
Baghdadi is the US’s second most wanted man, after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The FBI currently offers a $25 million reward for Zawahiri and $10 million for Baghdadi. That may be reversed soon.
Zahwahiri is cut off from the Arab world and spends most of his time in Pakistan hiding from American drones. Meanwhile, Baghdadi commands more territory, men and money than bin Laden ever did. The extreme violence of his Islamic State is a magnet for international volunteers, including up to 3,000 Europeans.
Nicolas Henin, an expert on the Middle East and one of four French journalists who were held hostage by Isis from June 2013 until last April 20th of this year, knows the group’s brutality intimately. One of his guards, a French jihadi, told Henin how the group behaves when it enters a Shia Muslim village.
“I go into the house and the first person I see is the grandmother,” Henin quotes the French jihadi. “It’s not worth more than a Kalashnikov bullet to kill her. Then I see the wife. The wife is more fun. I start by raping her. Then I slash her throat. After that, I’m hungry, so I go to the kitchen to see what’s to eat. Then I happen upon the baby. It’s a pleasure to cut the baby’s throat . . .”
Isis is the successor group to al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, became famous by posting his decapitation of the US contractor Nicolas Berg on YouTube. Zarqawi’s speciality was orchestrating the massacring of crowds of Shia Muslims with suicide carbombs. He was killed in a US bombing raid in 2006. His first replacement, Omar al-Baghdadi, was killed in the same manner in 2010.
In the meantime, from 2005 until 2009, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was imprisoned by US occupation forces at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
“The fighters I met didn’t talk much about Baghdadi, or about bin Laden,” Henin says. “Their model is the founder of the movement, Zarqawi. The people I was with were clearly inspired by Zarqawi.”
When he took over the movement in 2010, Baghdadi proved his capacity for violence by staging 60 simultaneous attacks that killed 110 people in one day. Then he ordered an attack on the cathedral in Baghdad in which 46 Christians were killed. In Aleppo, Syria, his movement has crucified eight men, tweeting images to supporters. To intimidate Shia-dominated security forces during its June onslaught in Iraq, Isis posted images of the summary executions of up to 1,700 Shia soldiers.
Baghdadi’s claim to be a descendent of the prophet Muhammad, and his self-elevation to caliph, may be rooted in his desire to surpass Zarqawi.