The rise of al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State

From the fall of Saddam and internment in a US prison in Iraq to the Arab Spring, the ISIS leader's influence grew

Published November 29, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi   (AP)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AP)

Excerpted from "The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy"

A hagiography  and former associates have described Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, as a devout, quiet youth. The truth is that we do not really know what the future leader of the Islamic State was like as a child or young man. We know he was born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971. We know too that his parents were neither very rich nor very poor and that the family lived in the Al-Jibriya district of  the city, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. We know, from al-Baghdadi’s  graduation certificate, that he did poorly in English, extremely well in mathematics and decently in most other subjects.

School was followed by several years at the Islamic University of Baghdad. Quite what he studied is not entirely clear, though it seems likely that, as supporters claim, he obtained a series of degrees, culminating in a PhD in Islamic studies. Through the 1990s al-Baghdadi appears to have been living in Tobchi, a mixed Shia and Sunni neighbourhood on the western edges of the Iraqi capital, among the outlying districts which would become a battlefield after the US invasion of 2003.  He may have been preaching and teaching in a local mosque. A picture from around this time shows an impassive, bearded man with a broad forehead, smallish sharp eyes and narrow lips. Much remains unclear about al-Baghdadi’s  background, but what we do know is this: the environment in which he grew up during his formative years was one of religious resurgence, increasing regime brutality and corruption, ruinous Western-backed sanctions and air strikes, and extremist proselytisation. All, of course, before the invasion of 2003.

In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Baghdadi appears to have helped establish one of the first entirely indigenous militant groups motivated by extremist Islam. This drew recruits from tribal networks and neighbours in his home town and surrounding villages. Al-Baghdadi, now aged thirty-two, was picked up apparently by chance in a US sweep and interned in Camp Bucca, a vast prison built outside the southern port city of Basra. In prison he ran a sharia court, led prayers and impressed fellow inmates, guards and a US-appointed jail psychologist with his calm, quiet, serious sense of purpose. He was released from Camp Bucca after nearly a year of detention in late 2004.  By 2006, he appears to have gained some kind of official position on the ‘sharia council’ of ISI, perhaps acting as a key adviser to the group’s leadership. In 2010, he was appointed the new ‘emir’. This decision may not have been entirely due to his own ability or, perhaps, charisma. There is much evidence he was selected, over many older and more experienced figures, because he had religious credentials and a quiet authority which other figures, particularly a number of former senior Ba’athists involved in the group at the time, lacked.

Many of these former officials were extremely competent men, with long experience in Saddam’s military or intelligence services followed by almost a decade of violent insurgency. Nor was their adherence to extremist Islam superficial or pragmatic. It is very likely that some had been sympathetic to hardline ideas well before 2003, but, despite Saddam’s tilt towards religion in the 1990s, had probably judged it impolitic to be too overt about their faith. It certainly should be no surprise that in post-invasion Iraq, Sunni Ba’athist officials and soldiers, forcibly demobilised and under occupation, in deteriorating economic conditions, who were engaged in an insurgency against the US and then a bitter sectarian civil war, who had seen friends and relatives killed by US troops or Shia militia, who had often been detained by the US military or Iraqi authorities for significant periods, and who had been surrounded by varying forms of anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Shia propaganda for their entire lives, should turn to radical Islam. The former Ba’athists brought a hard edge of military capability, organisational experience and, often, an understanding of how to run both a state and a military campaign that many Islamists lacked. There had been reports of such collaboration as early as 2004 or 2005. According  to Martin Chulov, the Middle East correspondent for the Guardian and one of the best-informed reporters in the region, this cooperation had matured into a true partnership around 2008 or 2009. It would continue to deepen after al-Bagdadi’s  appointment as leader of  ISI, with former Ba’athists coming to fill many of the most senior positions in the group.  In the June 2014 offensive against Mosul, a network of former Ba’athists led by the notorious Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president in Saddam’s Iraq and the man who had masterminded the faith campaign in the 1990s, provided invaluable assistance to ISI fighters. As a reward, a former Ba’athist general was appointed governor of Mosul after its fall. Al-Douri  praised ‘the heroes and knights of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’, thus substantiating a link between Saddam Hussein and the group founded by bin Laden, al-Qaeda, nearly twelve years after the connection, non-existent at the time, was used to justified the invasion of Iraq.

In time, further support for ISI came from Sunni tribes. Systematic discrimination, marginalisation and a series of broken promises had pushed Iraq’s Sunnis back into open opposition to central government by the time of the elections of 2010 after which al-Maliki managed to hang on to power. Not all were aligned with ISI’s goals by any means, but, in the shifting matrix of local conflict politics, many could make common cause at least temporarily. One particularly damaging failing of al-Maliki was his short-sighted treatment of those Sunnis who had earlier joined the anti-extremist Awakening Councils. These had often been organised by individual tribes and sub-tribes. Seeing them as a potential threat, al-Maliki  undermined them, leaving them unemployed, unpaid and unprotected. As early as 2010, ISI had been targeting such fighters with the carrot of better pay than the government offered and the stick of an extremely unpleasant death in the case of refusal. The effort was part of a broader programme of outreach to tribes. Analysts Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss describe an ISI tactic of offering leaders of minor tribes, or emerging younger leaders in major ones, control over an important resource, such as a particularly lucrative racket or smuggling route, if  they pledged their support to the group and eliminated its opponents in their communities.  Al-Maliki eased the task of al-Baghdadi and his associates by continuing to stoke the Sunnis’ sense that they were targets of a regional campaign of annihilation. In 2013, security forces sent by the prime minister to clear Sunni protesters in Hawija, a town in the north of Iraq, killed scores and injured many more. The incident prompted armed clashes across much of the country. Increasingly, all ISI’s leaders had to do was to organise and direct the fragmented elements of a rapidly reviving insurgency. Even in mid-2014,  according to some estimates, only a third of ISI’s combat strength was actually supplied by members of the group while the rest were fighters from other networks who were happy to join its armed columns as literal fellow travellers.

This was of particular importance when the leaders of ISI were presented with an extraordinary opportunity to expand into Syria. The strategic decision to exploit this unforeseen chance may also have originated with the Ba’athists within the group’s ranks. It led to a final break with al-Qaeda and fuelled the bitter rivalry between the two groups that exists today. It was critical to the emergence of the Islamic State as an independent, distinct entity, as well as of course to its eventual bid to re-establish a Sunni caliphate across a significant swathe of the Middle East, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by an Islamic group.40 It is a historical irony that this was only made possible by a series of uprisings led by people who explicitly rejected extremist Islam.

* * *

The ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab uprisings’ began in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a Tunisian grocer, an act of spectacular violence designed to communicate a very clear message and inspire others, but one, in contrast to those orchestrated by Islamic militants over the previous decade, which harmed no one else. With their words and their deeds, the crowds that took to the streets in a succession of cities and towns across the Middle East over the following months reinforced the impression that al-Qaeda and all it stood for had been marginalised. The slogans in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, in Tunis and in Manama were for democracy and human rights, not for the establishment of an Islamic state. Religion remained hugely powerful as a political, social and cultural force, but the uprisings that roiled the region through 2011 and into 2012 seemed to stand in stark opposition to Islamic militancy.

Yet, as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen  all descended into various degrees of anarchy and violence, it soon became clear that this sudden and powerful wave of change, though certainly a challenge to extremists, might also be the break they needed to reverse their steadily declining fortunes. Political Islamists who had long been repressed gained free rein to organise, proselytise and recruit in a way that had not been possible for decades, even taking power in some states and earning a greater government role in others.  Veteran extremists were released after years in prison, or returned from exile. Long-feared security services were disbanded, or remained disorientated and rudderless, suddenly unsure of the political and legal protection which had guaranteed immunity to the torturers and rapists that filled their ranks. As the first wave of euphoria turned to growing disillusion and anger, an ideal environment for recruitment, networking and activism was created.

In Syria, violent repression of peaceful demonstrators in March 2011 had prompted what rapidly became a full-scale rebellion against the long corrupt, nepotistic, brutal rule of the Assad family and their close associates. While the West dithered and moderates failed to unite, Islamists and Islamic militants stepped in. As the months went by, violence worsened and the regime worked to turn the growing conflict into a sectarian one. The Assads are Alawite, a Shia heterodox sect that comprised around an eighth of the population and was still viewed with some suspicion by many more traditional Shias around the world. Three-quarters of Syrians were Sunni, however, providing fertile ground for all those, inside and outside the rapidly disintegrating country, who saw the battle in terms of the Islamic world’s most fundamental division.

The background to ISI’s move into Syria was the success of Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (the Front for Protection of the Levant, JAN), the group set up by al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in partnership with ISI in the early days of the uprising against the Assad regime. This was a classic move in the tradition of  al-Qaeda’s  efforts over the decades to establish a presence wherever there was an opportunity to build capacity and spread its ideology, like a major multinational company trying to exploit a profitable new market. The venture in Syria was one of the more successful such projects. It was certainly more successful than the ill-fated joint undertaking with al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi start-up a decade before. By the spring of 2013, after nearly two years of savage civil war, JAN had emerged as one of the most effective and respected of the opposition factions fighting the Assad regime. It also controlled a substantial amount of land and some highly lucrative resources such as oilfields.

The exact catalyst for  ISI’s attempt  to assert its authority over al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate at this time is unclear. One possibility, suggested by a suspected ISI defector in a series of tweets, is that the JAN leadership refused an order from al-Baghdadi to send a team to bomb targets in Turkey on the basis that it might jeopardise Ankara’s policy of keeping their frontier with Syria open. Another possibility is that the seizure of the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa by JAN and several other rebel groups in the spring of 2013 made a  long-contemplated move that much more attractive and urgent. Whatever the truth, al-Baghdadi announced in an audio statement released in April  2013 that he had renamed his own organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and baldly stated that JAN was, effectively, its subsidiary. There was some justification for this claim, of course, as JAN had not only been set up by veteran fighters sent from Iraq by ISI but had been funded by their parent group since the outset.

However, it had then operated largely independently, and its leaders made no secret of their unwillingness to submit to their former chief. They publicly rejected al-Baghdadi’s bid to assert his authority over them, saying that they recognised only al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda, as their leader. When al-Zawahiri himself intervened in the dispute from his base in Pakistan, it was to tell al-Baghdadi to restrict himself to Iraq and to ‘listen to and obey your emir’. The ISIS leader’s response was to repudiate al-Zawahiri’s authority with some of the bluntest language used by anyone in recent years of Islamic militancy. His group then launched an offensive against JAN and their allies.

By the summer of 2013, the group now known as ISIS, exploiting divisions among opposition factions and JAN’s own increasing disarray, had taken control of Raqqa, the only provincial centre not held by Syrian government forces. This was a tipping point, and led to a wave of defections to al-Baghdadi’s forces, particularly of foreign fighters attracted  by  its more  aggressive approach and  greater resources. These enabled further advances. Much as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan two decades before, the group now known as ISIS made rapid territorial gains as much through persuasion and coercion as through  direct conquest. As its campaign gathered momentum, a range of disparate erstwhile opponents decided that their best interests lay inside the ISIS tent shooting out, rather than outside shooting in. As it had done in Iraq, the group paid particular attention to exploiting tribal conflicts to gain local allies. In a region riddled with decades-old feuds and bitter competition for resources, this was not difficult to do. The powerful and fractious tribes of eastern Syria offered particularly fertile ground. Fortified by the resources at its disposal, which now included the oilfields of eastern Syria and lucrative associated smuggling networks, ISIS advanced north  and west, picking off successive centres of population and focusing on strategic points such as border crossings, oilfields and supply routes.

The expansion into Syria also brought them advantages on the Iraqi side of the (increasingly meaningless) border. Sunni communities there felt themselves to be part of a transnational sectarian struggle that would come to define the future of the region and their place within it. The Shia regime in Damascus was backed, diplomatically, economically and militarily, by Iran and had received assistance also from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia Islamist organisation. Tehran had also long backed al-Maliki in Baghdad, supporting his hardline sectarian policies and, as in Syria too, helping to organise a series of extremist Shia Islamist militias as auxiliaries to  bolster Iraq’s weak, Shia-dominated military. Sunni states backed Sunni factions, even those following hardline militant agendas, with weapons and cash. These did not include JAN or ISIS but that did not matter necessarily. In this struggle the fault lines were well known. Indeed, some had been clear for centuries, if not a millennium or more. Nor was there any sense that the battle was already won or lost. Political scientist Vali Nasr has pointed out that although the Shia account for only between 10 and 15 per cent of the world’s Muslims, they constitute around half the population in the ‘Islamic heartland’ from Lebanon to Pakistan.

In this crucial zone, every effort could still count in swinging the balance one way or another, with massive long-term implications for either community.

In February 2014, al-Qaeda formally disowned ISIS. Al-Baghdadi’s response was to send a suicide bomber to kill al-Zawahiri’s personal envoy to Syria and allow subordinates to publicly deride the older man’s leadership of al-Qaeda. Now the new resources that ISIS had acquired in Syria could be switched to the Iraqi front, which had been carefully prepared by eighteen months of intelligence work, spectacular terrorist attacks on carefully selected targets, alliance-building and propaganda. It was veterans of their offensives against JAN, other factions and, much more rarely, Assad’s forces  who would lead the summer offensive which saw Mosul fall  and al-Baghdadi’s  fighters reach the outskirts of Baghdad.

Al-Baghdadi – or possibly the former Ba’athist soldiers and officials who had formulated the group’s Syrian strategy – had pulled off an extraordinarily bold and aggressive manoeuvre, one  that  caught almost every observer, and most participants in the fight, completely unprepared. The group’s next move was even more audacious, and even less expected.

Excerpted from "The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy" by Jason Burke. Copyright © 2015 by Jason Burke. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

By Jason Burke

Jason Burke has covered the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from day one. He writes for the Observer, a British newspaper.

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