Who was al-Baghdadi?

The US is boasting of yet another spectacular victory. Clearly it cannot learn from history. Yassamine Mather looks at the circumstances that produced the jihadist leader.


The October 26 US special forces attack on Islamic State’s hideout in northern Syria and the subsequent suicide of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group, were right out of a Hollywood movie, and Trump’s subsequent exaggerated announcement made the whole episode appear even more like fiction.

A US general was quick to tell us that Donald Trump’s claim that al-Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” was not true and he had no idea where Trump had got it from. The US president thanked Russia, Turkey and Syria for their assistance, but the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces claim that they had provided the information about the IS leader’s hideout - they had a spy amongst the group who stole al-Baghdadi’s underwear, which were used for DNA tests that proved his identity before the attack.

So who was Abu Bakr ‘Frankenstein’ al-Baghdadi,1 also known as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’, and how did he become IS leader? How did IS under his leadership manage to control a territory of 88,000 square kilometres, covering large chunks of western Syria and Iraq? How did he manage to rule over eight million Syrians and Iraqis, and to organise trade, export local products, including oil and cotton, from the territories he occupied, purchase weapons and recruit volunteers worldwide, including many from Europe?

The BBC tells us he “generated billions from oil, extortion and kidnapping”.2 But who did he sell oil to and how? Who gave them enough money to start up this group ? Who paid ransom money? I will try and address some of these questions.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri (al-Baghdadi’s real name) was the son of a religious Sunni family, born in 1971 in Samar, central Iraq. He became religious as a teenager and moved to Baghdad in 1990, where, according to his supporters, he did a master’s degree in Islamic studies and later a PhD at the Islamic University of Baghdad. This was the period after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, at a time when Saddam Hussein had launched his ‘faith campaign’, encouraging a more prominent role for Islam in the Ba’athist state.

At the time he was not opposed to Saddam or the Iraqi dictator’s backers - the United States and its allies. But during his Islamic studies he became familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood and later Salafism. The spread of this brand of Sunni Islam is related to a period when “Saudi Arabia actively started pursuing a policy of spreading Wahhabism as a conservative counter-narrative, backed up by money made in the oil industry”.3

Al Baghdadi’s political activities began in 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a Shia-dominated occupation government. According to journalist and commentator Mehdi Hassan, many Arabs and Muslims blame George Bush for the creation of Islamic State. In Iraq, says Mehdi Hassan, the US morphed from heroic liberators into brutal occupiers within a matter of weeks. In Fallujah, which would later become an IS stronghold, US troops opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters in April 2003, killing and wounding dozens of Iraqis:

The shootings, the torture, the general chaos - all helped drive thousands of Iraqis from the minority Sunni community into the arms of radical groups led by brutal gangsters, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s Al Qa’eda, formed in 2004 to fight US troops and their local allies, was a precursor to IS.4

Al Baghdadi joined Al Qa’eda and was arrested in Fallujah in 2004. He was held with thousands of other, mainly Sunni, Iraqis in Camp Bucca - a US prison notorious for the brutal treatment of its prisoners. In the words of the prison’s commander, US general James Skylar Gerrond: “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”5 Many prisoners were transferred to Bucca from Abu Ghraib prison, who suffered torture, and sometimes rape and murder. Such abuses were made public after the publication of photographs by CBS News in April 2004.

Al Baghdadi became a spokesperson and was later chosen as leader by fellow prisoners in the camp. It is in Bucca that he made alliances with former Iraqi Ba’athists, who were later to play an important role in his organisation.

Following his release from Bucca, Al Baghdadi rejoined Al Qa’eda and in 2006 he pledged allegiance to the Iraqi section’s jihadist council, known as the Mujahideen Shura. That year, the organisation changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and it was Al Baghdadi who headed its Sharia committee.

At this stage western intelligence organisations were predicting the demise of jihadist ‘terror groups’ in the region, but he rebuilt the ISI with financial help from supporters in Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf countries, and recruited a number of Ba’athist-era military officers, some of whom he had met in Bucca.

When US military forces withdrew form northern Iraq, the newly formed group used the dissatisfaction of the mainly Sunni population with the sectarian policies of the Shia-led government in Baghdad to recruit supporters and get a foothold in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.

All this was very much in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy of demonising the Shia religion, as opposed to imperialist aggression and occupation, blaming it for the terrible situation in the impoverished cities of northern Iraq. In 2011, as genuine protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime were being diverted into sectarian Salafi propaganda, the group joined the opposition against Assad and moved some of its forces to Syria. Throughout this period Saudi Arabia and a number of Persian Gulf countries transferred their propaganda machine from satellite TV stations to social media in order to promote Sunni fundamentalism and anti-Shia propaganda - all with the aim of weakening their arch-enemy in the region, Iran’s Islamic Republic, which was considered an ally of Damascus. There is no doubt that Islamic State’s infamous slogan - ‘Today Damascus, tomorrow Tehran’ - if not devised in Riyadh, was popular in the Saudi kingdom.

Of course, throughout these early years there was little attempt by the US or its western allies to tackle the jihadist group. No-one proposed sanctions against Arab countries whose citizens and religious organisations were funding Islamic State. When challenged, the rulers of these dictatorships told us they cannot control how individual citizens of their country spend their wealth! I personally find this very strange, coming from those such as the Saudi royal family, which imprisoned dozens of prominent Saudi business leaders on the orders of Mohammad bin Salman.

In June 2014, several hundred members of the jihadist group defeated five divisions of a demoralised Iraqi army. Basically the soldiers refused to fight - most fled the battle zone, while others actually joined Islamic State. This gave the group control of a major Iraqi city, as well as Tikrit - a Sunni stronghold and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. Both in Syria and Iraq, religious minorities were attacked - Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis and Shia Turkmen faced a terrible situation, with many becoming refugees trying to escape from IS.

Al-Baghdadi’s response to ‘sectarian’ Shia Iraqis in Baghdad was the slaughter of 100 Shia soldiers in Tikrit - they were pictured lying in a gutter, their hands tied behind their back. This was a deliberate propaganda image aimed at spreading fear among the local Shia population.

The same year IS announced the establishment of a “worldwide caliphate” with al Baghdadi as its caliph. Reverting to his real first name, he was now called “Caliph Ibrahim”. It was only in 2015 when the jihadi group’s international affiliates waged terror attacks on civilians in dozens of countries throughout the world that western governments started paying attention to its atrocities. It is said that IS has killed around 1,200 civilians outside Iraq and Syria.

Far from the image portrayed by western media of al Baghdadi as a man transported into the present from the Middle Ages and ‘savage’ Islamic history, he was actually a creature of modern times - a monster whose existence had more to do with US wars and the policies of its regional allies than any branch of Islam.

  1. . In the words of professor Hamid Dabashi: “Abu Bakr ‘Frankenstein’ al-Baghdadi - created and killed by the US - [was] a creature of the US unleashing of ferocious violence in Iraq [which] boomeranged into the making of a vicious mass murderer - now evidently dispatched to hell and done with by its original creators” (www.facebook.com/dabashi).↩︎

  2. . www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-50200392.↩︎

  3. . https://oxfordre.com/religion/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-255.↩︎

  4. . https://theintercept.com/2018/01/29/isis-iraq-war-islamic-state-blowback.↩︎

  5. . www.pressherald.com/2014/11/06/locked-up-but-learning-terror.↩︎