Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

Screenshots from 2014 and 2019 videos

On Monday, Islamic State released a video that purportedly showed leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi for the first time in five years. The leader of one of the world’s most notorious terror groups had been rumored to be dead, after IS’s defeat in Baghouz, eastern Syria, last month. Now, after his first appearance since he declared a caliphate from the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul in summer 2014, intelligence experts will be poring over the images to analyze what can be gleaned from them.

Biographical Overview

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, otherwise known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was born in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq, to a lower-middle class Sunni family. His family was known for its piety and his tribe claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. As a youth, Baghdadi had a passion for Koranic recitation and was meticulous in his observance of religious law. His family nicknamed him “the Believer” because he would chastise his relatives for failing to live up to his stringent standards.

Baghdadi pursued his religious interests at university. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad in 1996, and a Master’s and PhD in Koranic studies from Iraq’s Saddam University for Islamic Studies in 1999 and 2007 respectively.

Until 2004, Baghdadi spent his graduate school years living in the Tobchi neighbourhood of Baghdad with his two wives and six children. He taught Koranic recitation to neighbourhood children at the local mosque, where he was also the star of its football club. During Baghdadi’s time in graduate school, his uncle persuaded him to join the Muslim Brotherhood.

Baghdadi quickly gravitated towards the few violent ultra-conservatives in the Islamist movement and by 2000, under their tutelage, had embraced Salafist jihadism.

Within months of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Baghdadi helped found the insurgent group Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (Army of the People of the Sunnah and Communal Solidarity). In February 2004, US forces arrested Baghdadi in Falluja and sent him to a detention facility at Camp Bucca, where he remained for 10 months. While in detention, Baghdadi devoted himself to religious matters, leading prayers, preaching Friday sermons, and conducting classes for prisoners.

The US held Baghdadi at a detention centre in Iraq for 10 months. According to a fellow inmate, Baghdadi was taciturn but had a knack for moving between the rival factions at the facility, where former Saddam loyalists and jihadists mingled. Baghdadi formed alliances with many of them and stayed in touch when he was freed in December 2004.

After his release, Baghdadi contacted a spokesman for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a local al-Qaeda affiliate run by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Impressed with Baghdadi’s religious scholarship, the spokesman convinced Baghdadi to go to Damascus, where he was to ensure AQI’s propaganda adhered to the principles of ultra-conservative Islam.

Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by a US air strike and was succeeded by an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.That October, Masri dissolved AQI and founded the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). The group continued to privately pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Because of Baghdadi’s religious credentials and his ability to bridge the divide between the foreigners who founded ISI and the local Iraqis who later joined the group, Baghdadi steadily rose through the ranks. He was appointed supervisor of the Sharia Committee and named to the 11-member Shura Council that advised ISI’s emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Baghdadi exploited the chaos in Syria to gain a foothold there for Islamic State. Baghdadi was later appointed to ISI’s Co-ordination Committee, which oversaw communication with the group’s commanders in Iraq. After the deaths of ISI’s founder and its emir in April 2010, the Shura Council chose Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be the new emir. Baghdadi set about rebuilding the organisation, which had been decimated by US special operations forces. Hoping to capitalise on growing unrest in Syria in 2011, Baghdadi ordered one of his Syrian operatives to establish a secret branch of ISI in the country, later known as al-Nusra Front.

Baghdadi soon fell out with the leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, who wanted to collaborate with the mainstream Sunni rebels fighting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. But Baghdadi wanted to establish his own state through brute force before going after Assad.

In the spring of 2013, Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra was part of ISI, which he renamed “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant” (Isis/Isil). So-called Islamic State was formed in defiance of the al-Qaeda leadership When al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to grant al-Nusra its independence, Baghdadi refused. In February 2014, Zawahiri expelled Isis from al-Qaeda.

Isis responded by fighting al-Nusra and consolidating its hold on eastern Syria, where Baghdadi imposed harsh religious laws. Its stronghold secure, Baghdadi ordered his men to expand into western Iraq. In June 2014, Isis captured Iraqi’s second largest city, Mosul, and soon after, the group’s spokesman proclaimed the return of the caliphate, renaming ISIS “Islamic State”.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi Video

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi | Source: Black Edge Consulting

The elusive leader of the Islamic State terrorist group on Monday showed his face for the first time in roughly half a decade, and experts say he took the huge risk to capitalize on the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been rumored dead or severely wounded several times. But in a video released Monday, he appeared to be in good health as he delivered a rambling 18 minute address.

What does the video mean for counter-terrorism policy? It’s a reminder that the eradication of territorial control in Iraq and Syria doesn’t amount to the defeat of ISIS. Degrading the group’s networks globally will require a continued careful calibration of direct military force, intelligence sharing, arrests and prosecutions, training and equipping of partners, and other counter-terrorism tools such as efforts to thwart the radicalization process.

What Can We Glean From the Video?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi | Source: Black Edge Consulting

The footage of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chatting casually to his commanders released on Monday was only the second time he has been seen on film since he became the leader of ISIS. And like the one that came before, every part of it was carefully stage managed.

“This one was paired back compared to what we have come to expect, but there is no doubt that they will have spent a lot of time thinking about every single thing in that room, the position of everyone in that room, in a way that complements the overarching narrative of that video,” according to Charlie Winter, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

  1. From the video we learn that Baghdadi is neither dead nor disabled. His condition was not a foregone conclusion: Russia announced in 2017 that it blew him to smithereens in an air strike, and news reports said that he suffered a crippling spinal injury. The latter is still possible; Baghdadi doesn’t stand up or gesticulate in a way that demonstrates a full range of motion. His hands do appear a bit anemic.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi | Source: Black Edge Consulting

2. Baghdadi mentions many current events that establish the video as having been filmed this month. He notes the defeat of his forces in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul over the past couple of years, and finally in Baghuz, Syria, only a month ago. He notes the revolutionary protests in Algeria and Sudan, both of which are recent news. And in a coda to the video, he praises the attackers behind the April 21 bombings in Sri Lanka, saying that the Islamic State was retaliating for Baghuz (and not, as Sri Lankan officials have suggested, for Christchurch).

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi | Source: Black Edge Consulting

3. He is wearing a pocketed vest, the kind you rarely see a mullah wear but that insurgents and fly fishermen wear all the time. The rifle by his side stresses the point. And the message itself eliminates any doubt. The rhetoric no longer soars. The language, while formal, does not take on the pious diction of his previous speech, or most of the audio releases since then. Back when Baghdadi ruled a state — complete with a well-armed military, tax collectors, and health inspectors — he and his top deputy spoke with grandiosity that inspired followers and irritated enemies. Now, as an insurgent leader again, he has dispensed with the pleasantries. He is also seated by an AKS-74U rifle (with a larger 45-round magazine). It has symbolic weight in jihadist circles. “US journalist C. J. Chivers reported that the gun was nicknamed ‘the Osama’ in jihadist circles, after Osama bin Laden was photographed next to an AKS-74U.” AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was often pictured with one as well.

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