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.
When he announced the creation of the caliphate in an audio recording on June 29th, Isis spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani declared all other “emirates, groups, states and organisations” to be illegal. “Muslims: reject democracy, secularism, nationalism and the other rot of the West. Come back to your religion,” he exhorted. Dissenters, he warned, would get “a bullet in the head.” For nearly 1,300 years, from the death of Muhammad in 632 until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dissolved the caliphate in 1924, Sunni Muslims had a caliph to look to as their worldly and spiritual leader. Henin believes Isis’s proposed restoration of the caliphate will strengthen its pull on Muslims.
“Isis represent a greater danger than al-Qaeda for two reasons,” Henin says. “Muslim eschatology [theology concerned with the destiny of humankind] says the battle of the end of the world will take place in al-Sham – Syria. And the caliphate is the answer to Muslim frustrations; it represents something comparable to the Vatican for Catholics.”
Baghdadi always intended to establish a state, Henin says. “Several jihadis told us [hostages], ‘It’s important for us to negotiate with your governments, because we are building a state.’ One objective of hostage-taking was to bring western countries to their knees and force them to negotiate, as if they were dealing with a state. But the French negotiators said they didn’t see anything resembling a state, that Isis were more like gangsters.” Isis is at the same time medieval and modern. It sells oil and electricity and exploits social media to raise funds and recruit fighters. The group’s new, 36-page brochure on its administration of the region of Aleppo projects a positive image of Isis’s proto-state, complete with scenic views of countryside, police stations, schools, power plants, food and water distribution. The only allusion to women is a dress code that specifies women’s eyes must be covered and that they must wear loose clothing unlike that of men or “infidels”.
At the moment, Isis allows its local Iraqi allies – former Baathists, Arab tribesmen and insurgent groups that have been resuscitated – to run the towns it has just conquered. Should their proposed state survive, “It can be expected to replicate the model established at various times in Mali, South Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan,” says Dominique Thomas, a researcher at the French Islamic Studies Institute and the author of a book on al-Qaeda. “That is to say Islamic tribunals; a rigourously conservative administration determined to purify society of anything that might distract it from religion; morals police that watch every individual’s behaviour.”
Caliph Ibrahim’s Islamic State might most resemble the “emirate of Falluja” which existed in 2004 between April and November. Truls Tonnessen of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has devoted part of his doctoral thesis on al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Falluja experiment.
In Falluja, Tonnessen writes, “all ‘immoral activity’ was forbidden. Drinking and selling alcohol was prohibited, and the punishment for those who [broke the law] was public flogging. Movie theatres were closed down. Stores promoting ‘western, anti-Islamic customs,’ such as music and video stores, hairdressers, etc were closed or destroyed.”
Sunni jihadi groups in Yemen, Gaza, the Sinai and Algeria have rallied to the new caliphate. But there has been harsh criticism from Sunni theologians, who object to the sloppy linking of the modern word “state” with the ancient concept of a “caliphate,” says Thomas.
In a letter published this week, the Jordanian ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is close to al-Qaeda, noted that, until now, jihadi groups, for example in Chechnya, Somalia and Afghanistan, established emirates not caliphates or states. "To proclaim a caliphate, you have to have a wide-reaching consultation," says Thomas. "They're saying Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's egocentrism and narcissim led him to appoint himself caliph, when the requirements weren't fulfilled. He claims legitimacy to kill other Muslims. Even al-Qaeda didn't do that."
Baghdadi consummated Isis’s break with al-Qaeda last year, by defying Zawahiri’s order to defer to the rival al-Nusra front in Iraq. Like a cuckoo stealing a nest, Baghdadi’s troops took over areas already conquered by other jihadi groups in Syria, sometimes assassinating their leaders. It now dominates the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa and is present as far south as Damascus.
In Iraq, Isis has held the key towns of Falluja and Ramadi in Anbar province since last January. On June 10th, it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second city. Already wealthy thanks to donations from Sunni sheikdoms in the Gulf, Isis took control of granaries and oil fields in Syria and racketeered businesses in both Syria and Iraq. In 2012 and 2013, Isis kidnapped some 30 western journalists and aid workers in Syria. It has reaped tens of millions of dollars in ransom for the 12 hostages freed so far.
In Mosul, Isis captured Humvees, helicopters, armour and heavy weapons that the US had provided to the Iraqi army. The fighters raided the city’s bank vaults, netting a reported $0.5 billion in cash and gold. To put it in perspective, the 9/11 atrocities planned by bin Laden cost only $0.5 million, by bin Laden’s own calculations.
Who is Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra in 1971, and to have studied at the Islamic university in Baghdad. Some reports say his wife is from Falluja, and that he was an imam at a mosque there. He’s believed to have chosen the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for its symbolism: Abu Bakr, the companion of Muhammad, was the first Sunni Caliph (successor) after the prophet’s death. Al-Baghdadi simply means “from Baghdad” – an allusion to the Abbasid caliphate (1258-1517) when Baghdad ruled the Muslim world.
“Who is Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi to demand that all Muslims pay allegiance to him?” asks Tonnessen, the Norwegian expert. “The caliphate is a consequence of his military successes in recent weeks. Isis have momentum and they’re using it. They know it will be difficult to hold territory, because there are tensions with local allies, and international forces are mobilising against them. But this way, they can say: ‘Come and defend us. They’re attacking the Islamic State’.”