Written by Jay A. Lykins exclusively for SouthFront. Jay A. Lykins is a retired Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. He has an MBA in Third-World Economic Development and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Oxford University. He lives in Estes Park, Colorado USA.
On 29 June 2014, ISIL announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate. Al-Baghdadi was named its caliph, to be known as “Caliph Ibrahim,” and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was renamed the Islamic State (IS). There has been much debate, especially across the Muslim world, about the legitimacy of these moves.
The declaration of a caliphate has been heavily criticized by Middle Eastern governments, other jihadist groups, and Sunni Muslim theologians and historians. Qatar-based TV broadcaster and theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi stated: “[The] declaration issued by the Islamic State is void under shari’a and has dangerous consequences for the Sunnis in Iraq and for the revolt in Syria,” adding that the title of caliph can “only be given by the entire Muslim nation,” not by a single group.
As a caliph, al-Baghdadi is required to hold to each dictate of the sunnah, whose precedence is set and recorded in the sahih hadiths. According to tradition, if a caliph fails to meet any of these obligations at any period, he is legally required to abdicate his position and the community has to appoint a new caliph, theoretically selected from throughout the caliphdom as being the most religiously and spiritually pious individual among them. Due to the widespread rejection of his caliphhood, al-Baghdadi’s status as caliph has been compared to that of other caliphs whose caliphship has been questioned.
In an audio-taped message, al-Baghdadi announced that ISIL would march on “Rome” – generally interpreted to mean the West – in its quest to establish an Islamic State from the Middle East across Europe. He said that he would conquer both Rome and Spain in this endeavor and urged Muslims across the world to immigrate to the new Islamic State.
On 8 July 2014, ISIL launched its online magazine, Dabiq. The title appears to have been selected for its eschatological connections with the Islamic version of the end times, or Malahim (Book Of Battles).
According to a report in October 2014, after suffering serious injuries, al-Baghdadi fled ISIL’s capital city Raqqa, due to the intense bombing campaign launched by Coalition forces, and sought refuge in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest city under ISIL control.
On 5 November 2014, al-Baghdadi sent a message to al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri requesting him to swear allegiance to him as caliph, in return for a position in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The source of this information was a senior Taliban intelligence officer. Al-Zawahiri did not reply, and instead reassured the Taliban of his loyalty to Mullah Omar.
On 7 November 2014, there were unconfirmed reports of al-Baghdadi’s death after an airstrike in Mosul while other reports said that he was only wounded.
On 20 January 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that al-Baghdadi had been wounded in an airstrike in Al-Qa’im, an Iraqi border town held by ISIL, and as a result, withdrew to Syria.
On 8 February 2015, after Jordan had conducted 56 airstrikes, which had reportedly killed 7,000 ISIL militants from 5–7 February, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was said to have fled from Raqqa to Mosul, out of fear for his life. However, after a Peshmerga source informed the US-led Coalition that al-Baghdadi was in Mosul, Coalition warplanes continuously bombed the locations where ISIL leaders were known to meet for two hours.
On 14 August 2015, it was reported that he allegedly claimed, as his “wife,” American hostage Kayla Mueller and raped her repeatedly. Mueller was later alleged by an ISIL media account to have been killed in an airstrike by anti-ISIL forces in February 2015. However, other reports cite that Mueller was murdered by ISIL.
Who is al-Baghdadi and Where did He Come From?
Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarai is also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (and several other names). He is one of the world’s most wanted jihadists, and the leader of the Islamic State’s military operations and its new, self declared, caliphate.
But, who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? He is known to his supporters as Amir al-Mu’minin or Caliph Ibrahim. He is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri on 28 July 1971, is the leader of the Sunni Salafi jihadist militant jihadist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls territory In several countries. The group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, as well as by the European Union and others. In June 2014, he was elected by the majlis al-shura (consultative council or Shura council), representing the ahl al-hall wal-aqd of the Islamic State, to be their caliph, which he claims to be.
On 4 October 2011, the U.S. State Department added al-Baghdadi to the Specially Designated Nationals List and announced a reward of up to US$10 million for information or intelligence leading to his capture or death. On 16 December 2016, the U.S. increased the reward to $25 million equal to the reward being offered for the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Authorities within the United States have also accused al-Baghdadi of kidnapping, enslaving, and repeatedly raping an American, Kayla Mueller, who ISIL later falsely alleged was killed in a Jordanian airstrike.
Various reports of Baghdadi’s death, injury, or arrest have surfaced over time, but none have been confirmed by independent reliable sources.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the nom de guerre of an individual who has had various names and epithets attributed to him, including Abu Du’a, Al-Shaba (the phantom or ghost), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. He is known to his supporters as Amir al-Mu’minin, (Caliph), Caliph Abu Bakr, Caliph al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim. This is besides his previous epithet, which was Sheikh Baghdadi.
Abū, corresponds to the English, “father of.” Having at sometime taken the name Abu Bakr, al-Baghdadi is thought to have adopted the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. During the times when Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (this being the prophet Muḥammad) might have suffered from illnesses, Caliph Abu Bakr was the replacement for leading prayer, according to the Sunni tradition of Islam. His surname (al-Baghdadi) literally means one from Baghdad and denotes he comes from Baghdad city or Baghdad governorate in Iraq. The birthname of Amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri.
Al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born near Samarra, Iraq, in 1971. He was apparently born as a member of the tribal group known as Al-Bu Badri tribe.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, contemporaries of al-Baghdadi describe him in his youth as being shy, unimpressive, a religious scholar, and a man who eschewed violence. For more than a decade, until 2004, he lived in room attached to a small local mosque in Tobchi, a spinal injury neighborhood on the western fringes of Baghdad, inhabited by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.
Ahmed al-Dabash, the leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq and a contemporary of al-Baghdadi who fought against the allied invasion in 2003, gave a description of al-Baghdadi that matched that of the Tobchi residents:
“I was with Baghdadi at the Islamic University. We studied the same course, but he wasn’t a friend. He was quiet, and retiring. He spent time alone . . . I used to know all the leaders (of the insurgency) personally. Zarqawi (the former leader of al-Qaeda) was closer than a brother to me . . . But I didn’t know Baghdadi. He was insignificant. He used to lead prayer in a mosque near my area. No one really noticed him.”
In 2014, American and Iraqi intelligence analysts said that al-Baghdadi had a doctorate for Islamic studies in Quranic studies, from Nahrain (formerly Saddam) University in Baghdad. According to a biography that circulated on extremist internet forums in July 2013, he obtained a BA, MA, and Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Another report said that he earned a doctorate in education from the spinal injuryUniversity of Baghdad.
“They [the US and Iraqi Governments] know physically who this guy is, but his backstory is just myth,” said Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm. “He’s managed this secret persona extremely well, and it’s enhanced his group’s prestige” said Patrick Johnston of the RAND Corporation, adding, “Young people are really attracted to that.” Being mostly unrecognized, even in his own organization, Baghdadi was known to be nicknamed at some time about 2015, as “the invisible sheikh.”
Reuters, quoting tribal sources in Iraq, reports Baghdadi has three wives, two Iraqis and one Syrian. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has said that al-Baghdadi has two wives, Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Dulaimi and Israa Rajab Mahal A-Qaisi. He also has two children, a boy and a girl.
That’s it. Very little, if anything else, is known of him prior to the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces. It is reported that he is so unrecognized in his own organization, that Baghdadi is nicknamed “the invisible sheikh.” This is also part of the prophesy of Islamic eschatology and al-Mahdi, the purported savior of Islam. Could Baghdadi be this savior, al-Mahdi?
Sectarianism and Theocracy
Through his forename, he is rumored to be styling himself after the first ever Caliph, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, who led the early jihad battles at the formation of Islam. Some Muslims have already drawn a correlation between those ancient events and modern events under Baghdadi’s reign. This too, is part of the prophecy that surrounds legend concerning Islam’s savior, the Mahdi.
Some believe that al-Baghdadi was already an Islamic revolutionary during the rule of Saddam Hussein, but other reports contradict this. He may have been a mosque cleric around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Baghdadi helped found the militant group Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah (JJASJ), in which he served as head of the shari’a committee. Al-Baghdadi and his group joined the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in 2006, in which he served as a member of the MSC’s sharia committee. Following the renaming of the MSC as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, al-Baghdadi became the general supervisor of the ISI’s shari’a committee and a member of the group’s senior consultative council.
Al-Baghdadi was arrested by US Forces-Iraq on 2 February 2004 near Fallujah and detained at the Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention centers under his name was as a “civilian internee” until December 2004, when he was recommended for release by a Combined Review and Release Board. In December 2004, he was released as a “low level prisoner.”
A number of newspapers and cable news channels have instead stated that al-Baghdadi was interned from 2005 to 2009. These reports originate from an interview with the former commander of Camp Bucca, Colonel Kenneth King and are not substantiated by Department of Defense records. Al-Baghdadi was imprisoned at Camp Bucca along with other future leaders of ISIL.
Leader of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was the Iraqi division of al-Qaeda. Al-Baghdadi was announced as leader of the ISI on 16 May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
As leader of the ISI, al-Baghdadi was responsible for masterminding large-scale operations such as the 28 August 2011 suicide bombing at the Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad, which killed prominent Sunni lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi. Between March and April 2011, the ISI claimed 23 attacks south of Baghdad, all allegedly carried out under al-Baghdadi’s command.
Following the death of founder and head of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, on 2 May 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, al-Baghdadi released a statement praising bin Laden and threatening violent retaliation for his death. On 5 May 2011, al-Baghdadi claimed responsibility for an attack in Hilla, 100 kilometers (62 mi) south of Baghdad, that killed 24 policemen and wounded 72 others.
On 15 August 2011, a wave of ISI suicide attacks beginning in Mosul resulted in 70 deaths. Shortly thereafter, in retaliation for bin Laden’s death, the ISI pledged on its website to carry out 100 attacks across Iraq featuring various methods of attack, including raids, suicide attacks, roadside bombs and small arms attacks, in all cities and rural areas across the country.
On 22 December 2011, a series of coordinated car bombings and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks struck over a dozen neighborhoods across Baghdad, killing at least 63 people and wounding 180. The assault came just days after the US completed its troop withdrawal from the country. On 26 December, the ISI released a statement on jihadist internet forums claiming credit for the operation, stating that the targets of the Baghdad attack were “accurately surveyed and explored” and that the “operations were distributed between targeting security headquarters, military patrols and gatherings of the filthy ones of the al-Dajjal Army (the Army of the Anti-Christ in Arabic),” referring to the warlord Muqtada al-Sadr.
On 2 December 2012, Iraqi officials claimed that they had captured al-Baghdadi in Baghdad, following a two-month tracking operation. Officials claimed that they had also seized a list containing the names and locations of other al-Qaeda operatives. However, this claim was rejected by the ISI. In an interview with Al Jazeera on 7 December 2012, Iraq’s Acting Interior Minister said that the arrested man was not al-Baghdadi, but rather a sectional commander in charge of an area stretching from the northern outskirts of Baghdad to Taji.
Expansion into Syria and break with al-Qaeda
Al-Baghdadi remained leader of the ISI until its formal expansion into Syria in 2013 when, in a statement on 8 April 2013, he announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – alternatively translated from the Arabic as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
When announcing the formation of ISIL, al-Baghdadi stated that the Syrian Civil War jihadist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra – also known as al-Nusra Front – had been an extension of the ISI in Syria and was now to be merged with ISIL. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, disputed this merging of the two groups and appealed to the al-Qaeda emir, who issued a statement that ISIL should be abolished and that al-Baghdadi should confine his group’s activities to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi, however, dismissed al-Zawahiri’s ruling and took control of a reported 80 percent of Jabhat al-Nusra’s foreign fighters. In January 2014, ISIL expelled Jabhat al-Nusra from the Syrian city of Raqqa, and in the same month clashes between the two in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Governorate killed hundreds of fighters and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. In February 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIL.
According to several Western sources, al-Baghdadi and ISIL have received private financing from citizens in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and enlisted fighters through recruitment drives in Saudi Arabia in particular.
Listed as a Global Terrorist
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is designated by the U.S. Department of State as a “specially designated global terrorist.” This designation was passed after the events of 11 September 2001, by George W. Bush as Executive Order 13224. The State Department lists Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as a senior leader of the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is involved in: numerous attacks in Iraq since 2011, and as leader of ISIL, “is responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the Middle East, including the brutal murder of numerous civilian hostages from Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”
Al-Baghdadi is the top target in the war against ISIL. U.S. Intelligence believes he is based in Raqqa and that he keeps a low profile, hiding among the civilian population. ISIL is believed to be headquartered in a series of buildings in Raqqa, but the proximity of civilians makes spinal injury the headquarters off limits under U.S. rules of engagement. Photos of a possible public appearance in a Fallujah mosque surfaced in February 2016.
Haider al-Abadi was reported (7 February 2017) to have stated he knew of the location of al-Baghdadi. Colonel John Dorrian, of the Combined Joint Task Force, stated he was aware of al-Baghdadi having chosen to sleep in a suicide vest, as a reaction to the necessities of his current situation, should it be that he might find himself facing capture.
Reports of Death, Bodily Harm, and Arrest
According to media reports, al-Baghdadi was wounded on 18 March 2015 during a coalition airstrike on the al-Baaj District, in the Nineveh Governorate, near the Syrian border. His wounds were apparently so serious that the top ISIL leaders had a meeting to discuss who would replace him if he died. According to reports, by 22 April al-Baghdadi had not yet recovered enough from his injuries to resume daily control of ISIL. The U.S. Department of Defense said that al-Baghdadi had not been the target of the airstrikes, and “we have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi.” On 22 April 2015, Iraqi government sources reported that Abu Ala al-Afri, the self-proclaimed caliph’s deputy and a former Iraqi physics teacher, had been installed as the stand-in leader while Baghdadi recuperated from his injuries.
In April 2015, The Guardian reported that al-Baghdadi was recovering from the severe injuries which he had received during the airstrike on 18 March 2015, in a part of Mosul. It was also reported that a spinal injury which had left him paralyzed meant that he might never be able to fully resume direct command of ISIL. By 13 May, ISIL fighters had warned they would retaliate for al-Baghdadi’s injury, which the Iraqi Defense Ministry believed would be carried out through attacks in Europe. On 20 July 2015, The New York Times wrote that rumors that al-Baghdadi had been killed or injured earlier in the year had been “dispelled.”
On 11 October 2015, the Iraqi air force claimed to have bombed al-Baghdadi’s convoy in the western Anbar province close to the Syrian border while he was heading to Kerabla to attend an ISIL meeting, the location of which was also said to be bombed. His fate was not immediately confirmed. There were some subsequent speculation that he may not have been present in the convoy at all.
On 9 June 2016, Iraqi State TV claimed that al-Baghdadi had been wounded in a U.S. airstrike in Northern Iraq. Coalition spokesmen said they could not confirm the reports.
On 14 June 2016, several Middle Eastern media outlets claimed that al-Baghdadi had been killed in a U.S. airstrike in Raqqa on 12 June. Coalition spokesmen said they could not confirm the reports. The Independent however, later stated that these reports of Baghdadi’s death were based on a digitally altered image claiming to be a media statement from ISIL.
On 3 October 2016, various media outlets claimed that al-Baghdadi and three senior ISIL leaders were poisoned by an assassin but still alive.
On 18 April 2017, some media reported that al-Baghdadi was arrested in Syria. Citing the European Department for Security and Information (DESI), several media outlets reported that al-Baghdadi was apprehended by Syrian and Russian joint forces. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said they did not have knowledge of the news and were not aware of his arrest.
On 11 June 2017, Syrian state TV has claimed al-Baghdadi has been killed in the artillery strike that was backed by the US.
On 16 June 2017, Russian media reported that al-Baghdadi might have been killed in a Russian air strike near Raqqa, Syria on 28 May along with 30 mid-level ISIL leaders and 300 other fighters. The Russian claims to have killed 330 iSIL fighters including Baghdadi did not match reports from Raqqa that found 17 or 18 civilian deaths and possibly ten ISIL fighter deaths from an airstrike against buses south of Raqqa on May 28. The United States cast doubt on the claim, noting a lack of independent evidence.
On 23 June 2017, Russian politician Viktor Ozerov stated that al-Baghdadi’s death was almost “100 percent certain.” Iran later claimed to confirm Russia’s claim that al-Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike.
On 29 June 2017, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iranian government’s official media, published an article quoting a representative for Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Quds Force, stating that al-Baghdadi was “definitely dead.” IRNA removed this quotation in an updated version of the article.
On 11 July 2017, Iraqi news agency Al Sumaria stated on its website that ISIL had circulated a brief statement that Baghdadi was dead. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed it had “confirmed information” of his death. The U.S. Department of Defense stated it was trying to confirm the new reports of his death. The Kurdish -terrorism official Lahur Talabany told Reuters he was “99 percent” sure Baghdadi was alive and hiding in Raqqa.