Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2015-2016 I was trying to understand the emergence and character of Islamic State and ended up purchasing and reading four books in particular that appeared to be authored by researchers whose credentials indicated that they should know what they are talking about:

  • Cockburn, Patrick. 2015. The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution. London ; New York: Verso.
  • McCants, William Faizi. 2015. The Isis Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Stern, Jessica, and J. M. Berger. 2015. Isis: The State of Terror. London: William Collins.
  • Weiss, Michael. 2015. Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts.

I thought I’d share here with anyone interested what each of those authors had to say about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014-2015. I omit the details of Islamic State expansion and focus on al-Baghdadi’s background and rise to lead the Islamic State. (Contrary to what even official state declarations from the U.S. have said, al-Baghdadi definitely was not the founder of ISIS. al-Baghdadi does not enter the story of ISIS until after it had been up and running for about six years.) One facet not brought out in the following extracts is that al-Baghdadi’s vision of an Islamic State caliphate was flatly opposed by Al Qaeda’s leadership. Al Qaeda foresaw that any attempt to establish a territorial caliphate at that time could only face one outcome — total military defeat by Western-led armies. And that’s what happened, as we know. al-Baghdadi was the man to push for such territorial expansion, however, recruiting military leaders from Saddam’s Baathist dominated army. What happens now that Islamic State is both defeated militarily and also having lost the leader who was the force behind that military quest remains to be seen. A reunification with Al Qaeda? A focus on terrorist operations? Eventual dissipation?

. . . ISIS. Before it captured Mosul and Tikrit it could field some 6,000 fighters, but this figure has multiplied many times since its gain in prestige and appeal to young Sunni men in the wake of its spectacular victories. Its very name (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) expresses its intention: it plans to build an Islamic state in Iraq and in “al-Sham” or greater Syria. It is not planning to share power with anybody. Led since 2010 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, it has proved itself even more violent and sectarian than the “core” al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is based in Pakistan.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began to appear from the shadows in the summer of 2010 when he became leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops. AQI was at a low point in its fortunes, as the Sunni rebellion, in which it had once played a leading role, was collapsing. It was revived by the revolt of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 and, over the next three years, by a series of carefully planned campaigns in both Iraq and Syria. How far al-Baghdadi has been directly responsible for the military strategy and tactics of AQI and later ISIS is uncertain: former Iraqi army and intelligence officers from the Saddam era are said to have played a crucial role, but are under al-Baghdadi’s overall leadership.

Details of al-Baghdadi’s career depend on whether the source is ISIS itself, or US or Iraqi intelligence, but the overall picture appears fairly clear. He was born in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad, in 1971 and is well educated, with degrees in Islamic studies, including poetry, history, and genealogy from the Islamic University of Baghdad. A picture of al-Baghdadi, taken when he was a prisoner of the Americans in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, shows an average-looking Iraqi man in his mid-twenties with black hair and brown eyes.

His real name is believed to be Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. He may have been an Islamic militant under Saddam as a preacher in Diyala province, to the northeast of Baghdad, where, after the US invasion of 2003, he had his own armed group. Insurgent movements have a strong motive for giving out misleading information about their command structure and leadership, but it appears al-Baghdadi spent five years, between 2005 and 2009, as prisoner of the Americans.

After he took over, AQI became increasingly well organized, even issuing detailed annual reports itemizing its operations in each Iraqi province. Recalling the fate of his predecessors as AQI leader, al-Baghdadi insisted on extreme secrecy, so few people knew where he was. AQI prisoners either say they never met him or, when they did, that he was wearing a mask.

Patrick Cockburn

Taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, al-Baghdadi sent experienced fighters and funds to Syria to set up JAN as the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He split from it in 2013, but remained in control of a great swath of territory in northern Syria and Iraq.

Against fragmented and dysfunctional opposition, al-Baghdadi has moved fast towards establishing himself as an effective, albeit elusive, leader. The swift rise of ISIS since he took charge has been greatly helped by the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011, which encouraged the six million Sunnis in Iraq to take a stand against the political and economic marginalization they have encountered since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Cockburn, Patrick. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. Verso. Kindle Edition. 2015


Masri’s and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi’s disastrous reign was ended by American and Iraqi soldiers who killed the men in a joint raid on Masri’s mud hut in April 2010. In the following three months, thirty-four more Islamic State leaders would be killed or captured, crippling the organization but also making room for new leadership. The Islamic State announced the appointment of its new commander of the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in May although it would be two years before he issued a public statement. Like his predecessor, most jihadists had never heard of him.

In the three years since its birth in the autumn of 2006, the Islamic State had managed to humiliate its absentee lords in al-Qaeda and lose every bit of territory it claimed to rule. An authoritarian, arrogant style coupled with mismanagement, apocalyptic zeal, and unfocused brutality against an ever-widening circle of enemies was poorly matched against the strength and resolve of the State’s opponents. Although the organization would come back to life again as the last American troops departed in 2011, for the moment its prospects were bleak.

But just as the flag of the Islamic State was trampled underfoot in Iraq, jihadist fanboys and al-Qaeda’s own affiliates began to lift it up, keeping the dream of the caliphate alive during a bleak period for all of al-Qaeda’s affiliates preceding the chaos of the Arab Spring, which would renew the fortunes of the global jihadist movement.

McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (p. 45). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Despite the success to come, the auguries boded ill for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he assumed leadership of the Islamic State in May 2010. American and Iraqi troops had killed his predecessor while he was at home, which meant the Islamic State had been penetrated by its enemies. Many of the group’s leaders had met similar fates at American hands. In response, the Islamic State shifted to a strategy of clandestine terrorism to cope with the setbacks but longed to fight in the open again as an insurgent group. An Islamic state is nothing if it has no land.

Baghdadi was an unlikely executive. He had no bureaucratic or military training. And he was young, born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri on July 1, 1971, to a lower middle-class farming family in Samarra, Iraq. Despite his humble origins, though, Ibrahim had connections. Two of his uncles served in Saddam’s security apparatus, and one of his brothers was an officer in Saddam’s army. Another brother died in the army when Ibrahim was young, a casualty of the Iran–Iraq war. Ibrahim himself would never serve in the military because of his poor eyesight.

The city Ibrahim grew up in was famed for the golden-domed shrine containing the remains of the tenth Shi’i imam and his son. Although Ibrahim, a Sunni, would become rabidly anti-Shi’a later in life, he claimed descent from the tenth imam. Through him, Ibrahim traced his lineage all the way back to the first imam, Ali, and his father-in-law, the Prophet. The man who would one day wage a war against the Shi’a was steeped in their mythology and claimed to descend from their leaders.

Neighbors, friends, and detractors remember Ibrahim’s family for its piety but differ over its brand of Sunni Islam. Today, Ibrahim’s Salafi-jihadist followers say the family was Salafi, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam like the kind practiced in Saudi Arabia. Others say Ibrahim was raised a Sufi and didn’t become a Salafi until college. Sufism is a mystical strain of Sunni Islam despised by the Salafis. Whatever the case, friends and neighbors uniformly describe him as “quiet,” “introverted,” and deeply devout. Ibrahim’s brother says he was a “stern” child who chided his siblings for minor religious infractions. His nickname in the neighborhood was “the believer.”

In high school, Ibrahim has a middling student. He was excellent at math, so-so at Arabic, and terrible at English, barely passing the subject in his second try at the national exam in 1991. Because of his average scores, Ibrahim couldn’t study law at the University of Baghdad as he had hoped. So he enrolled in the university’s College of Islamic Sciences, where he first studied the Shari’a and then switched to Qur’anic studies.

Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in 1996, Ibrahim enrolled at Saddam University for Islamic Studies as a graduate student. (It was renamed the Islamic University after the Americans invaded in 2003.) Saddam had founded the university in 1989, and it soon became an integral part of his effort to patronize Islamic studies to offset the growth of ultraconservative Salafism, which he viewed as a threat to his rule. For his master’s thesis, Ibrahim edited a medieval book on Qur’anic recitation. It took him more years to graduate than he would have liked because one of his advisors died and another moved to Yemen. In other words, Ibrahim underwent the normal travails of a graduate student.

In the mid-1990s, Ibrahim joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a fraternal order that seeks to establish Islamic governments. Most Muslim Brotherhood branches peacefully pursue their goal, working within the local political system. Its members are intellectually diverse because the group doesn’t have a fixed theological creed other than being vaguely Sunni. There are liberal members and conservative members. Ibrahim fell in with the ultraconservative Salafi members of the group in Baghdad.

After finishing his master’s degree in 1999, Ibrahim was accepted into the university’s doctoral program. Academically, he continued to study his favorite subject, the recitation of the Qur’an. Intellectually, he moved rapidly to the right, embracing revolutionary jihadist Salafism by 2000, three years before the American invasion of Iraq. “My group does not embrace me” he told a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood when he left the organization.

On June 30, 2004, a year after the Americans invaded Iraq, one of Ibrahim’s professors filed a “Follow-Up Form for Students of Graduate Studies.” “He has not attended my class,” he noted. “Arrested.”

Ibrahim was sitting in Camp Bucca, a sprawling American detention center in the Shi’i south that held 24,000 inmates. He had been picked up in February 2004 while visiting a friend in Fallujah whom the Americans were hunting. U.S. government records show Ibrahim was held for ten months as a “civilian detainee,” which means the Americans had no evidence he was in an insurgent group. His picture attached to the records shows a man with close-cropped hair and a trimmed mustache sporting a long black beard and large, silver-rimmed glasses beneath dark, bushy brows.

Whether or not Ibrahim had joined the insurgency before landing in Bucca, he certainly did afterward. The prison was known as the “Academy” because it brought together so many jihadists and former members of Saddam’s military and security services. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” remembered Abu Ahmed, a prisoner who knew Ibrahim. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”

Abu Ahmed recalled that Ibrahim held “himself apart from the other inmates, who saw him as aloof and opaque.” But the prison guards viewed Ibrahim as a leader who was able to calm disputes between factions. Ibrahim befriended former members of Saddam’s military and intelligence services, as well as future members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The men would meet again outside the wire and rise with Ibrahim through the ranks of the Islamic State after its senior leaders were killed or captured.

Ibrahim didn’t join al-Qaeda until 2006, when his militia enlisted in al-Qaeda’s umbrella organization, Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin. When the Islamic State declared itself later that year, Ibrahim was made the head of all the Shari’a committees in the group’s Iraqi “provinces.”

Ibrahim was a multitasker. Despite the weight of his new responsibilities, he successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation in March 2007. The aspiring scholar had edited part of a medieval commentary on an Arabic poem about how to recite the Qur’an. His advisor, a professor in Tikrit, could not come to Ibrahim’s dissertation defense in Baghdad because travel was dangerous so he sent along his comments to the committee. “The study the student wrote is good but it contained some errors which I noted on the pages of the thesis.” The professor points out typographical and spelling mistakes and gives advice on how to make a critical edition from conflicting manuscripts. It was the mild criticism of a pleased professor. Ibrahim was awarded a grade of “very good” for his efforts.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim was navigating the Islamic State’s internal politics. The connections he had made in Camp Bucca served him well, as did his experience at negotiating between the prison factions. The Iraqis in the Islamic State chafed at the power of the foreign Arab faction headed by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. The Iraqis rallied around Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi who was nominally in charge of the Islamic State. Although he still played second fiddle to Masri, Abu Umar’s stature among younger jihadists had grown, perhaps because of the aura of mystery that surrounded him. Ibrahim managed to win over both Abu Umar and Masri. According to one insider account, Ibrahim served as one of Abu Umar’s three couriers, which meant he enjoyed the emir’s trust. Some of the emir’s letters to Bin Laden were supposedly drafted by Ibrahim, and “their journey always started with him.” But another insider portrays Ibrahim as a mere pass-through for correspondence; he never knew “the sender and the receiver.”

Whatever the case, Ibrahim’s discretion and secrecy kept him alive. When the Islamic State’s commander in Baghdad was arrested, he named two couriers who carried messages to the State’s leaders. The Americans tracked the couriers to the hideout of Abu Umar and Masri, who didn’t survive the encounter. The third courier, Ibrahim, lived to die another day.

Upon the death of their leaders, the eleven members of the Islamic State’s Shura Council deliberated on a new emir. Bin Laden’s chief of staff, Atiyya Abd al-Rahman, wrote them to suggest a procedure for selecting one:

We suggest the noble brethren in the leadership appoint a temporary leadership to manage affairs until the consultation is complete. We believe it is best that they delay—as long as there is not an impediment or a strong preference for . . . hastening an official permanent appointment—until they send us suggested names and a report about each of them (the name, background information, qualifications, etc.) that we can send to Shaykh Osama so he can advise you.

The procedure was not followed by the Islamic State, either because no one saw the letter in time or because its recipients ignored it. Clandestine communication makes it hard to run a militia from afar.

But slowness and the vagaries of clandestine communication can also create opportunities. The Islamic State’s Shura Council couldn’t meet in conclave for security reasons, so its members had to correspond separately. The head of the Islamic State’s military council, a former colonel in Saddam’s army named Hajji Bakr, saw a way to turn the situation to his advantage. Hajji Bakr wrote each member individually, saying the others had agreed that Ibrahim should take charge. Ibrahim was one of the youngest candidates considered, but he had a lot going for him. He claimed descent from Muhammad; he was a member of the Shura Council and close to the previous emir; and he had ties to other powerful members. It also mattered that members of Ibrahim’s tribe had been early supporters of the Islamic State. His tribal connections could help the group make a comeback. Nine of the eleven Shura Council members voted for Ibrahim, now taking the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commander of the faithful.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders heard about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s appointment in May after everyone else did. Distrustful of the new leadership, in July Bin Laden asked his chief of staff for information about Baghdadi and his deputies. “Ask several sources among our brothers there, whom you trust, about them so that the matter becomes clear to us.” Several days later, Atiyya promised he would do so. But he was apparently unsuccessful because he wrote the Islamic State’s Ministry of Media in September: “The shaykhs [in al-Qaeda] ask you for an introductory paper about your shaykhs in the new leadership.” Better yet, “perhaps they can write and introduce themselves.”

A representative for the Islamic State’s Shura Council wrote back on October 9. He claimed the Islamic State had received al-Qaeda’s instructions to select a temporary emir after it had already announced Baghdadi’s appointment. Nevertheless, the representative affirmed Baghdadi’s loyalty to al-Qaeda and his consent to be a temporary leader. If al-Qaeda had a better candidate to lead, the Islamic State would “hear and obey.”

When Bin Laden died a few months later, Baghdadi made a public statement assuring the new head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that the men of the Islamic State were “faithful” to him and al-Qaeda. In a private letter on May 23, 2011, the Islamic State asked if Zawahiri wanted Baghdadi to make a more explicit public pledge of allegiance to him. The al-Qaeda chief apparently declined.

William McCants

While Baghdadi stalled for time with his leaders in al-Qaeda, he consolidated his hold on power in the Islamic State. At his right hand was the man who had helped him take the throne, Hajji Bakr. Those who knew the bald, white-bearded Hajji Bakr described him as the “prince of the shadows” and Baghdadi’s “private minister.” According to insiders, the first order of business for the prince of shadows was to purge the Islamic State of leaders he suspected of disloyalty; those who didn’t leave their posts willingly were killed. He and his boss replaced them with their Iraqi allies, many of whom had served as officers in Saddam’s military and intelligence services. Saddam, who had conducted a similar purge when he came to power, would have been pleased.

His throne secure, Baghdadi set about reviving the Islamic State’s flagging fortunes.

McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (pp. 74-79). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition. 2015



Al-Badari, who assumed the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was in effect appointed by ISI’s Shura Council as a singular replacement for two slain commanders. He came seemingly out of nowhere. What is known about him in both Iraq and within US intelligence circles came to light after ISIS reigned triumphant across two countries and in the subsequent media rush to figure out the identity of this tenebrous new figure. As a result, much of the second al-Baghdadi’s biography still hovers not far above the level of rumor or speculation, some of it driven, in fact, by competing jihadist propagandists intent on scandalizing or delegitimizing the caliph being presented as more authoritative than Ayman al-Zawahiri. But this cleavage into pro and contra camps took time. “No one thought he wanted competition with al-Qaeda,” Alkhouri said. “In secret communication, he not only pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri, he asked if this pledge should be made public or secret. Al-Zawahiri replied that it should be kept secret to avoid complexities and take some of the pressure off ISI.” Born in 1971 near the city of Samarra, al-Baghdadi became a scholar of Islamic studies, obtaining both a master’s degree as well as a doctorate in the subject from the University of Islamic Sciences in Baghdad’s Adhamiya suburb. He’s said to have lived in modest quarters attached to a local mosque in Tobchi, a western district of Baghdad that was fairly mixed between Sunni and Shiite residents. Like most mass murderers recollected by those who knew them in their nonage, his friends and acquaintances say he was the quiet, retiring type who in no way resembled the dangerous fanatic of recent imagination (“Neighbors Remember Serial Killer as Serial Killer” being a headline confined only to the satirical pages of the Onion, apparently.) Al-Baghdadi wore glasses, excelled at soccer, and carried himself in a manner befitting a scholar.

Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on ISIS who consults with the Iraqi government, met al-Baghdadi in the late 1990s. “He did not have the charisma of a leader,” al-Hashimi told us. “When I met him, he was extremely shy and did not speak much. He was interested in religious studies, and the focus of his interest was the Quran. He was from a poor rural family, and he was not envious of urban people, as others often are. His ambition was limited to obtaining a government job within the Islamic endowment ministry.” According to one of his neighbors, Abu Ali, who spoke to the Daily Telegraph, al-Baghdadi came to Tobchi when he was eighteen years old: “The mosque here had its own imam. When he was away, religious students would take his place. [Al-Baghdadi] would sometimes lead the prayers but not give any sermons.” He grew more reactionary as time wore on, Abu Ali remembered, recounting al-Baghdadi’s reaction to a wedding in Tobchi at which men and women were “dancing in the same room. He was walking past on the street and saw this. He shouted ‘How can men and women be dancing together like this? It’s irreligious.’ He stopped the dance.”

Wael Essam, the Palestinian journalist with extensive experience reporting from Iraq, talked to many Sunnis who were al-Baghdadi’s colleagues during his academic days at the University for Islamic Sciences. Al-Baghdadi, they claimed, was either a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or an affiliate of it when he matriculated. His Salafist inclinations came later, well into his curriculum. “Al-Baghdadi was close to Mohammed Hardan, one of the Brotherhood’s leaders,” Essam said. “Hardan had left to fight with the mujahidin in Afghanistan and returned in the 1990s and adopted a clear Salafist ideology. Al-Baghdadi joined Hardan’s group organizationally and ideologically. He also briefly joined Jaysh al-Mujahideen [the Army of the Mujhahidin, a Sunni militant group].”

By around 2000 al-Baghdadi had a doctorate, a wife, and a son. By 2003 the United States occupied Iraq, although the future ISIS leader was not yet an insurgent. Abu Ali told the Telegraph that al-Baghdadi bore no discernible grievance against US forces at that point: “He wasn’t like the hot-blooded ones. He must have been a quiet planner.”

So quiet that by late 2003 he had founded his own Islamist faction, Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (the Army of the People of the Sunni Community); a year after that, he was enrolled in another sort of university— Camp Bucca.

Contrary to numerous claims in the Western press that suggest that al-Baghdadi was released from Bucca in 2009, when it was shuttered, he actually served only a single yearlong stint in the internment facility, in 2004. “He was visiting a friend of his in Fallujah named Nessayif Numan Nessayif,” al-Hashimi recalled to us. “With him was another man, Abdul Wahed al-Semayyir. The US Army intelligence arrested all of them. Baghdadi was not the target— it was Nessayif. He was arrested on January 31, 2004, and was released on December 6, 2004. He was never arrested again after that. Everything to the contrary is incorrect.”

Abu Ahmed, the former high-ranking ISIS member who knew al-Baghdadi at Bucca, told the Guardian that prison administrators at first took al-Baghdadi to be something of a problem-solver. His PhD in Islamic studies conferred a jurisprudential wisdom on him to which squabbling jihadist inmates seemed to defer. As such, the Americans let him travel among the different camp blocs at Bucca, ostensibly to resolve conflicts; instead, al-Baghdadi used the indulgence to recruit more foot soldiers. In time, according to Abu Ahmed, he started causing problems in the prison, using “a policy of conquer and divide to get what he wanted, which was status. And it worked.”

When al-Baghdadi was released at the end of 2004, owing to US appraisals that he posed a low-level risk to the coalition or Iraqi institutions, he grew even more extremist in orientation, according to Essam. In 2007 he joined the Mujahideen Shura Council, which al-Zarqawi had installed to nationalize the insurgency. However, al-Baghdadi’s purism and his mercurial alliance-making meant that he wasn’t really interested in working with an ideologically diverse consortium of insurgent groups, even if al-Qaeda was primus inter pares. An AQI commander from Fallujah told Essam that al-Baghdadi turned on just about every faction he ever joined. “He left the Muslim Brotherhood and he then declared them apostates and agents of [former US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad. He also left Jaysh al-Mujahideen and he engaged in hostilities against them, especially in al-Karmah [a town northeast of Fallujah]. Al-Baghdadi was always very consistent about his position on fellow Sunni militant groups that were not part of his own organization. He would say: ‘Fighting them is more of a priority than fighting the Americans.’

His insistence on the need for fratricidal warfare— or fitna between and among Sunnis— would remain a hallmark of al-Baghdadi’s leadership well into the expansion of ISIS into Syria and Iraq. Essem also maintains that, contrary to the popular belief that al-Baghdadi came from nowhere, he was actually well-known to both Iraqis and Americans. “His uncle was Ismail al-Badri, member of Iraq’s Muslim Ulema Association, which is considered an apostate organization by his nephew. Al-Baghdadi’s sister-in-law is also married to a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the vehicle of the Brotherhood in Iraq. Before the Americans withdrew, he was arrested multiple times because of his kinship to Abu Bakr.”

Furthermore, according to al-Hashimi, al-Baghdadi’s ascension to ISI emir was decided overwhelmingly, by nine out of eleven members of the Shura Council. There were three reasons for his selection. First, he belonged to the Quraysh tribal confederation, considered one of the most venerable in the Middle East, thanks to its proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was also said to have hailed from this tribe, the wellspring of all Islamic caliphs.) Second, al-Baghdadi had himself been a member of ISI’s Shura Council and was therefore close to Abu Omar. Finally, he was chosen because of his age: he was a generation younger than the other viable candidates for emir and was viewed as someone with more staying power to lead ISI out of the doldrums once US forces had quit Iraq. Today, ISIS reveres him as a “messenger.” “Whoever comes to you while your condition is united behind a single man, and intends to break your solidarity or disrupt your unity, then kill him,” Dabiq proclaimed, exhorting all Muslims to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi.


Al-Baghdadi’s rise heralded yet another mutation of ISI, or rather a retrogression of it to an earlier period in the Sunni insurgency’s history. There were visibly many more former Baathists in the higher ranks, owing no doubt to the continued Iraqization of the organization. As General Odierno noted in his June 2010 Pentagon news briefing, AQI’s leadership had been all but destroyed in a very short space of time— thirty-four out of the top forty-two operatives were removed from the battlefield in one way or another— and the franchise had lost its ability to coordinate with al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Pakistan. The vacuum this created at the top meant that, before al-Zawahiri and bin Laden could appoint a new emir from afar, the Iraqi wing of ISIS was able to decide on one of its own in Abu Bakr.

According to US officials, that was the internal story told by two disgruntled al-Qaeda members several years later. The reason they were disgruntled was that their perception of the rise of al-Baghdadi, whatever his level of education, represented the takeover of the Salafist-Jihadist movement within ISI of people without strong Salafist-Jihadist credentials— the Baathists.

There is no argument among analysts or those who knew al-Baghdadi that he is a true-believing takfirist. But, as we’ve seen already, even rock-ribbed terrorists benefit from their own who’s who, mainly in the form of filial or tribal connections that enable them to leverage a birthright afforded to them by the very societies or regimes they seek to destroy. Might al-Baghdadi have benefited from his ties to the Baathists?

Given what is known of his biography and education, the likelihood is strong.

According to Derek Harvey, “he’s clearly not Zarqawi. But the breadth and size of the organization and the things it has going on from financial enterprises to administration to the running of eight separate regional commands, to its tactical partnering with Naqshbandi Army, to its tribal outreach— I see a Baathist style to all of this. And I know that one of Baghdadi’s mentors at the University of Islamic Sciences was close to Izzat al-Douri. Al-Douri continually operated from Raqqa and [the] northeastern Syria area early on in ISIS’s emergence in Syria.”

Al-Hashimi pointed out that al-Baghdadi had sought in his youth to pursue a career at Saddam’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments. “I had a talk with a senior former Iraqi official who was a senior official in Saddam’s regime and under al-Maliki,” an active US military official told us.

“I asked him specifically about al-Baghdadi. ‘Did you know who he was?’ Not specifically, but he knew the background that he came from and the extended network he came from. In Saddam’s time, where this guy was from and where his family was from was very much a Saddamist-Baathist stronghold. The people who came from Samarra were very tight with the regime. Al-Baghdadi went to the Islamic University of Baghdad at exactly the time of Saddam’s Faith Campaign— in other words, at a time when the Baath Party was controlling admissions. There’s no way you’d get into the Islamic University at that time without getting vetted and approved by the party, and there’s no way you’d get vetted and approved by the party without having an extended family network of uncles and cousins and so on who are in the regime and endorsing you. So yeah, al-Baghdadi may not have been a Baathist himself, but I guarantee you he had a lot of Baathist family members who put him into the Islamic University.”

As we’ve examined, the anti-American insurgency in Iraq drew its strength from Sunni revanchism. One way to view Baathism historically is as one among many exponents of Sunni political power. It competed in its heyday with pan-Arab nationalism, as expounded by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Islamism of Sayyed Qutb’s Brotherhood, and the Salafist-Jihadism of bin Laden. Indeed, the Islamic Faith Campaign was meant to preempt Salafism’s usurpation of Baathism. Today, the secular socialist ideology is in a tenuous state of coexistence and competition with the caliphate-building takfirism of ISIS. Amatzia Baram and Pesach Malovany, two scholars of contemporary Iraq, take this thesis even further and make an intriguing case for viewing al-Baghdadi as the rightful heir to Saddam Hussein. For one thing, they argue, even though he is originally from Samarra, his chosen nom de guerre, al-Baghdadi, immediately situates the Iraqi capital as ISIS’s center of gravity, which it was under the Abbasid caliphate, itself an important Islamic touchstone for the dead Iraqi dictator. “Saddam never declared himself to be a caliph,” Baram and Malovany write, “but his conceptual connection with the Abbasid caliphate centered in Baghdad was profound. One of the nicknames attached to his name was ‘Al-Mansur,’ which means ‘Victorious by the grace of God,’ but that was also the name of the most important Abbasid caliph. . . .Saddam also gave names derived from the Abbasid history to numerous military units he established. . . .So, as far as the central role of Iraq and Baghdad is concerned, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi is Saddam’s disciple.

“The brutality, the tradecraft, how ISIS is behaving on and off the battlefield— it’s really no different from the Saddamists, in my view,” said Derek Harvey, who would surely know.

There is also a grim parallel between Saddam and al-Baghdadi’s hatred of the Shia. The Baathist slaughtered 150,000 of them during Saddam’s thirty-year reign, most notoriously during the suppression of the Shia and Kurdish uprising against his regime in March 1991, at the end of the First Gulf War. When his tanks rolled into Najaf in 1991, they had the slogan “La Shi ` a ba ` d al-yawm” (“ No Shia after today”) painted on their sides.

Weiss — Hassan

If there is a difference in the ideology of murderous sectarianism, then, it is one of scale. For all his savagery, Saddam did not make it a matter of state policy to seek the wholesale destruction of the Shia, nor could he— they were still tolerated in the upper echelons of the Iraqi military and in the Baath Party, even after the 1991 massacres. Al-Baghdadi, however, has so far demonstrated nothing short of annihilationist intention, following in the dark pathological tradition of al-Zarqawi. To ISIS, the Shia are religiously void, deceitful, and only marked for death.


Harvey’s insight is all the more compelling for the fact that ISIS’s high command consists of former or recovering Saddamists, those who occupied elite posts in the Iraqi military or Mukhabarat. Al-Hashimi credits two men in particular with helping al-Baghdadi advance in ISI.

Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (pp. 116-118). Regan Arts. Kindle Edition. 2015


  • Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jamaah: The Army of the Sunni People. A Sunni insurgent group that formed following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was reportedly a cofounder of this group.

. . . . 

  • October 2006 Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is formed; Abu Omar al Baghdadi named new leader.

. . . .

  • Fall 2009 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi released from United States’ Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2009 when the camp is officially closed. April 2010 ISI leaders Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri (aka Abu Hamza al Muhajir) are killed in U.S.-led air strike. May 2010 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi named leader of ISI.

. . . .

  • July 2014 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi leads prayer at a mosque in Mosul, his first public appearance. He emphasizes the existence of the caliphate and renames himself Caliph Ibrahim. July 2014 ISIS releases the first issue of Dabiq, an English-language magazine.

. . . .

  • Within a short span, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his fanatical followers have sketched out a new model for fringe movements to exploit changing social dynamics and new technologies, exerting an influence over world politics that is wildly disproportionate to its true size and strength.

. . . .

Chapter Two

The Rise of ISIS

After the death of Zarqawi, the Islamic State in Iraq had been handed setback after setback. When Abu Omar al Baghdadi, head of the ISI, was killed in 2010, it marked a turning point.

ISI’s new leader was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, but he operated under the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

His life story is ambiguous, sparse on details, and few of those uncontested. He was reportedly born in 1971 to a Sunni Arab family in the Iraqi city of Samarra, a city just north of Baghdad. His family was said to be directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad.

According to a disputed but widely distributed biography published under a pseudonym by Turki al Binali, a Bahraini national who joined ISIS, Baghdadi was born into an observant Salafi family and “his brothers and uncles include preachers and teachers.”

According to Abu Ali, a neighbor of the family, Baghdadi remained in Samarra until he was eighteen, when he moved to Tobchi, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. He lived in a run-down apartment attached to the local mosque and reportedly enrolled in the Islamic University of Baghdad, eventually receiving a doctorate in Islamic culture and Shariah law. Abu Ali described him as a “quiet person, and very polite,” but also a “conservative practitioner of Islam.” He was said to have led prayers at the local mosque from time to time.

During this period, Baghdadi was also a classmate of Ahmed al Dabash, who later became the leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq, a Sunni Arab insurgent group. Dabash remarked that the young Baghdadi “did not show much potential.” He described Baghdadi as “quiet, and retiring. He spent time alone. . . . He was insignificant.”

Baghdadi reportedly led a quiet life until the United States and its allies invaded Iraq. In 2003, Baghdadi is believed to have begun on the path of jihad.5

Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al Sunnah wa-al-Jamaah (the Army of the Sunni People Group) was an insurgent group operating in Samarra, Diyala, and Baghdad. Baghdadi was a cofounder and the head of the group’s Shariah committee.

In late 2004 or early 2005, an American-led raid on a home near Fallujah led to the capture of many high-level insurgents and a man who was described as an “apparent hanger-on.” The latter was registered at Camp Bucca detention center as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri.

There are conflicting accounts of Baghdadi from his time in Camp Bucca. A Pentagon official described him as “a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” a characterization that seems inconsistent with his background.

Andrew Thompson, who served at one of the U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq, wrote an article with Jeremy Suri, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, arguing that the structure of Camp Bucca facilitated further radicalization among the prisoners.

Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any violent crime. Coalition prisons became recruitment centers and training grounds for the terrorists the United States is now fighting. . . .

Small-time criminals, violent terrorists and unknown personalities were separated only along sectarian lines. This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The detainees who rejected the radicals in their cells faced retribution from other prisoners through “Shariah courts” that infested the facilities. The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.

In 2007, Major General Douglas Stone became the deputy commanding general of Multi-National Forces in Iraq with responsibility for in-country interrogation and detention. In this capacity, he was responsible for detainees at Camp Cropper, Camp Bucca, and Camp Ashraf. He spent the following year reforming prison conditions and installing innovative deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration techniques, which expedited the release of low-risk prisoners and appeared to reduce recidivism.

Most of the individuals taken into detention did not need to remain for long periods of time, or in many cases should not have been there in the first place, he told us. Many were not jihadists, but were unemployed citizens paid or coerced into joining the resistance. More than 80 percent of the detainees tested illiterate and were largely ignorant about Islam, which made them particularly susceptible to recruitment while in prison.

In interviews for this book, General Stone recounted the reintegration process:

We studied the detainees: their tribal affiliations, their education level, their employment skills, their purported crimes, their leadership skills, and the extent to which they subscribed to jihadi principles. We decided to separate the hard-core jihadists from the casual insurgents. Our biggest worry was that the real jihadists were using the prison as a terrorist training camp. We wanted to release the individuals who shouldn’t have been there, or who could be easily reintegrated into Iraqi society, as quickly as possible. We hired hundreds of teachers to train detainees to read. We hired one hundred and fifty imams from around the globe to preach mainstream Islam. We offered them job training. After a couple of years, we were able to release most of the prisoners, with less than two percent ever returning to the fight. That left only the true problem cases. Only about five thousand were left. The majority were either former regime Baathists, former criminals, or serious takfiri ideologues, followers of Zarqawi’s extreme beliefs regarding declaring other Muslims to be apostates. Even in American detention these takfiris were killing other detainees, cutting their eyes out, and trying to impose a version of Shariah that most Muslims would find quite abhorrent.

Baghdadi’s time in detention would only have made him more effective, General Stone said, pointing out that the individuals who spent time in Guantanamo pose a similar problem. Jihadists who get out of U.S. detention develop a kind of aura when reintegrated into their home communities, he said, making it easier for them to recruit others, or to symbolize defiance against a Western power.

Baghdadi was probably systematically organizing while he was in detention. Building up IOUs, getting to know whom to trust. He must have been plotting while he was incarcerated—he must have planned the whole rollout of the Islamic State. . . .

If you look at how Baghdadi has set up the top leadership of ISIS, you can see how skilled he is. The guys at the top are all very skilled managers. Many of them are former Ba’athists. And to me a most important thing—he’s actually designated someone to run ISIS detainee operations. He learned, from being in detention himself, that if you don’t manage the prison well, the detainees will just organize themselves against you. And sure enough, his strategy has been to recruit his cadres from the prisons where jihadis were detained. He knows that’s where to find hard-core radicals. But even if Baghdadi is ultimately replaced, the ideas that he is promoting will be with us a long time.

Baghdadi left Camp Bucca as an outspoken jihadi and immediately joined the ranks of the ISI, then under the leadership of Abu Omar al Baghdadi. When a United States–Iraqi joint air strike targeted and killed Zarqawi’s successors in April 2010, it wiped out the ISI’s senior leadership. With its leadership in disarray and its relevance waning, ISI sought out a leader with both religious authority and a track record of strategic successes.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi fit these criteria. His education in Islamic law far exceeded the leaders of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden studied business in college; his degree was reportedly in public administration. Ayman al Zawahiri was a surgeon. And the strength of Baghdadi’s strategies would soon become clear.

In May 2010, he ascended to lead the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Baghdadi’s first priority after becoming leader was his own personal safety. With ISI in shambles, Baghdadi set out to rebuild the organization, eliminating potential critics and replacing them with trusted allies, many of whom had spent several years with Baghdadi in Camp Bucca.

Among them were several Ba’athist leaders. Although AQI and ISIS are motivated by an ideological commitment to reviving an Islamic state based on their understanding of Shariah, they formed an alliance with the former Ba’athists, who had lost their jobs and status thanks to de-Ba’athification. According to some reports, the “Ba’athification” of ISIS may have been the brainchild of a former colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army who spent time with Baghdadi at Camp Bucca.

“In the early days of the alliance, the Ba’athists may have had the upper hand as they brought military and organization skills and a network of experienced bureaucrats that AQI and then ISI lacked,” says Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group.

The Ba’athists became a critically important part of ISIS. Baghdadi chose many of them to fill top organizational positions, including Abu Muslim al Turkmani, who became Baghdadi’s second in command (until he was reportedly killed in late 2014), and the senior leader of the military council, Abu Ayman al Iraqi. According to Barrett, at least eight of ISI’s senior leadership members are former inmates at Camp Bucca.

Learning from past leaders’ mistakes, Baghdadi disguised his identity from the earliest days, even in the presence of his closest advisors. Abdul Rahman Hamad, an ISIS fighter who spoke to Time magazine, stated, “[He] knew how men can be seduced by money, so he never shared his secrets with anyone.” He became known among his men as the “invisible sheikh” or the “Ghost.” With between 800 and 1,000 fighters in his ranks, Baghdadi would lead Iraq into its deadliest years since 2008.

Under Baghdadi’s leadership, ISI escalated its violence throughout 2010 and 2011, including using coordinated suicide attacks in several locations on the same day. In October 2011, the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program instated a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest or capture of Baghdadi.

By July 2012, in an atmosphere of growing sectarianism fueled in no small part by the policies of Prime Minister Maliki, Baghdadi had rebuilt the organization so substantially that he apparently felt no qualms about publicly pre-announcing his next move—a campaign called “Breaking Down the Walls,” in which Baghdadi promised to liberate Iraqi prisons overflowing with insurgents and jihadists.

Using covert channels to communicate with prisoners in advance, ISI spent the next year making good on Baghdadi’s promise. The insurgents attacked eight prisons using improvised explosives. They freed hundreds of prisoners, many of whom were senior leaders of ISI and its predecessors, or experienced fighters who subsequently joined the organization.

Stern — Berger

During the same one-year period, Baghdadi had courted the wrath of al Qaeda by declaring an expansion of the ISI into neighboring Syria, which was now engulfed in civil war. In defiance of al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, the Islamic State in Iraq was to be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, using the now notorious acronym ISIS.

From the ashes of near-total defeat, a new and virulent jihadist idea had emerged, and it aimed to terrorize the world with its brutal ambition.

Stern, Jessica. ISIS: The State of Terror. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. 2015



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Neil Godfrey

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