Sitting cross-legged, the man spoke slowly and softly. Overweight with a grey streaked beard and wearing quasi-military clothes, he could have passed for any one of the thousands of fighters who have been drawn to the killing fields of the Middle East’s recent conflicts, from Tripoli to Raqqa.
But this was no ordinary paramilitary. The man in the video was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed leader of the Daesh caliphate. A man who had not been seen for almost five years. A terrorist leader who was rumored to have been killed in an airstrike in 2017. And he had two clear messages: I’m not dead, and I’m still leading a global terror campaign whose followers kill without regret and die without fear.
It might never have been this way. When Al-Baghdadi became Daesh leader in 2010, his prospects seemed limited. Iraqi troops had killed his predecessor in his own house. The group had been infiltrated by spies. The suggestion that he might one day lead a black flag-waving column of jihadists into major cities and hold territory roughly the size of a country like Jordan or Portugal seemed preposterous. But lead them he did.
Born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badri in July 1971, the future Daesh leader had relatives who worked in Saddam Hussein’s feared intelligence service and army, a military force he was unable to join because of his nearsightedness.
Al-Baghdadi was an average student who later enrolled at the Saddam University for Islamic Studies. In the mid-1990s he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Contemporaries say he left the organization to mix with determined jihadists around the turn of the century — a path many have followed since.
His exact involvement in the insurgency and civil war that gripped Iraq in the years following the US invasion is disputed by experts. He was arrested in Fallujah and held at the infamous Camp Bucca detention facility from early 2004. The ideology that fired the eventual Daesh group can be traced back through centuries, but its operational origins can be traced to this prison in the mid 2000s. The camp mixed jihadists with former Saddam military intelligence officers who together plotted the group’s eventual rise. Al-Baghdadi entered the prison as a mid-level jihadist and left with greatly enhanced connections and a strong reputation for religious knowledge within terrorist circles.
While Al-Baghdadi was in prison, a fundamental shift took place among jihadi terror groups operating in Iraq.
In 2002, an organization called Tawhid wal-Jihad began to operate it the north of the country, led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Following the 2003 invasion, Al-Zarqawi’s group grew and became part of Al-Qaeda in 2004, under the banner Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This ultra-violent group carried out some of the most lethal attacks during Iraq’s dark period in the mid-2000s. In 2006, without consulting their nominal leaders in Al-Qaeda command, the group combined with eight other jihadist outfits to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Baghdadi was a member of one of the groups that joined this new alliance, and was made the head of all the Sharia committees in the group’s constituent Iraqi regions.
This new organization had a wider ambition, which differed from Al-Qaeda’s aim to plan and commit spectacular terror attacks, mainly in the West. It wanted a caliphate, governed by its own strict interpretation of Islamic law, to which all Muslims within its territory owed allegiance. And it was prepared to do anything to get it.
Al-Baghdadi rose through the ranks of the group as the US surge started in 2007 and successive leaders were killed. Judged as having sufficient religious authority and leadership ability, he was made leader in 2010.
With violent sectarianism spiralling in Iraq, the Syrian civil war brought a new area of chaos for the group to exploit and it became a credible military force capable of holding territory. The ideology and conditions for the establishment of a caliphate were set.
In 2011, Al-Baghdadi created Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) to fight in the Syrian conflict and later announced it would join the expanded Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Daesh). The name is important — “Al-Sham“/Greater Syria evoked memories of previous caliphates. After a dispute, the Al-Qaeda leadership disowned Daesh.
Under Al-Baghdadi’s leadership Daesh rapidly gained and held territory. Raqqa and Fallujah fell to its fighters in early 2014, and then Mosul and other important areas were seized. Daesh was no longer a terrorist group, but an army with an occupied territory.
On July 4, 2014, after the world had been shocked by the group’s lightning military advances, Al-Baghdadi seized his moment with an address at Mosul’s central mosque in which he deliberately highlighted mannerisms and stylistic elements to evoke the style of previous caliphs.
Before he spoke he used a miswak (small stick) to clean his teeth in the traditional way. He wore a black turban, and spoke classical Qur’anic Arabic with regular citations from the Qur’an, claiming to be implementing God’s law. The message was clear: He was declaring himself caliph and called on Muslims worldwide to support Daesh.
As the so-called caliphate established itself, Al-Baghdadi was a looming, if not visible, figure. Audio recordings were released intermittently. In the spring of 2015, he laid bare his twisted religious views, saying Islam was never a peaceful religion but instead was “the religion of fighting.”
In September 2017, Al-Baghdadi reiterated his call for global jihad, calling for “soldiers of Islam in every location to increase blow after blow.”
However, within two years, by February 2019, Daesh had been reduced to a bleak encampment in Barghuz, Syria, where the last remaining fighters were killed or taken prisoner. However, tanks and bombs had failed to kill Al-Baghdadi or his group’s ideas.
Despite setbacks and almost total defeat in Iraq and Syria, Daesh was now the world’s most feared terror group. Repeated attacks, most recently in Sri Lanka, added to the group’s notoriety. Al-Baghdadi, however, remained unseen. Rumours spread that he was ill, dead or in hiding.
On April 29, 2019, we found out. A new Daesh was released showing the self-proclaimed caliph in less magisterial terms.
In Mosul in 2014, Al-Baghdadi had addressed his followers as a putative head of state, but now he addressed them as a military commander, saying the Daesh ideal lives on, we may have lost our land but our vision is the same — and I am in charge.
Citing recent Daesh attacks, he deployed subtle messaging and visual metaphors. Al-Baghdadi may have looked older than his 47 years, but he had lost none of his ability to communicate with jihadis and potential recruits.
The AK-47 at his side was one that had been seized from Soviets troops by the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. It was the same weapon used as a prop by Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in their video addresses. Al-Baghdadi could have had any weapon he wanted, but he chose this.
Discussing Daesh’s terror campaigns around the world, Al-Baghdadi used symbolism to let his followers know that the fight goes on.
For those monitoring Daesh’s violence, it is a reminder that although the group may no longer hold territory, it is still a global threat, led by an ideologue who uses false religious justification to support their crimes.
Baghdadi committed suicide and was announced dead after a US raid on October 26, 2019.