Monday, July 7, 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi emerges from shadows to rally Islamist followers

For a man so mysterious that there are only two known photographs of him, it was a brazen public debut. The most wanted man in the Middle East, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is also one of the most elusive, an evanescent figure behind the Islamist insurrection sweeping the Syrian and Iraqi interior. And yet according to jihadist websites at the weekend, here he was on video openly rallying the adepts of the new Islamic state he had just pronounced in the largest city that his fighters had taken. Clad in black robes that invoked a distant, almost mythical phase of Islamic history, Baghdadi gave a half-hour sermon during Friday prayers in Mosul and led worship inside one of the most important Islamic sites in Iraq in open defiance of the US intelligence officials who have put a $10m bounty on his head.

In doing so, he laid down a challenge not only to the authorities in Baghdad and the foreign powers that want stability in the country, but to the radical Islamist mothership from which the Isis movement broke – al-Qaida, and its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Those present at the grand mosque in Mosul had no idea who would be preaching on Friday. But as the bearded figure made his entrance, he was introduced to them simply as "your new caliph Ibrahim". "I am not better than you or more virtuous than you," Baghdadi says in the video. "If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God."

Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awad al-Badari in 1971 near Samarra, a city 50 miles north of Baghdad. He took a master's degree and a PhD in Islamic studies at the University of Islamic Sciences in the Baghdad suburb of Adhamiya. When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, the pious Baghdadi was still studying and was not thought to be connected to either al-Qaida or its local offshoot in the early years of resistance. But by late 2005 he had been captured as a suspected mid-ranking figure in the anti-US Sunni insurgency. His jailers at Camp Bucca detention centre in southern Iraq have described him as inconspicuous.

After his release he was recruited to the military council of the Islamic State, acting as a key adviser to the then leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. At the time the group was engaged in the intense sectarian war with Iraq's majority Shia and their militias. "He wasn't the most impressive guy in the organisation," said another Islamic State member who spent time with Baghdadi in prison. "He wasn't even really a standout. He was a mid-ranking loyalist until he was freed." Six months in detention was a major step in his transformation from devout Muslim to committed jihadist. However, it was another four years before he would assume the leadership of the movement, taking over from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US-led raid near Falluja. He set about turning it from a local branch of al-Qaida into a distinct, independent force with a clear agenda: to re-establish a Sunni caliphate across Iraq and Syria.

Still, Baghdadi remained an unknown quantity until early last year when Isis started to make real inroads on the battlefields of northern Syria. By the summer it had ousted a second jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, and stamped its authority over the northern Aleppo countryside. It then set up a base in the eastern Syrian city of Raqaa, commandeering Syria's eastern oilfields and moving steadily eastwards towards Falluja and Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province... read more: