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.
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