BAGHDAD – When American forces raided a home near Fallujah during the turbulent 2004 offensive against the Iraqi Sunni insurgency, they got the hard-core militants they had been looking for. They also picked up an apparent hanger-on, an Iraqi man in his early 30s whom they knew nothing about.
The Americans duly registered his name as they processed him and the others at the Camp Bucca detention center: Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry.
That once-peripheral figure has become known to the world now as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State group and the architect of its violent campaign to redraw the map of the Middle East.
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS,” he said, using the abbreviation of the Islamic State group when it was known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
At every turn, Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq – most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after Islamic State military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Baghdadi has seemed to revel in the fight, promising that the group would soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States.
American and Iraqi officials have teams of intelligence analysts and operatives dedicated to stalking him, but have had little success in piecing together the arc of his life. And his recent appearance at a mosque in Mosul to deliver a sermon, a video of which was distributed online, was the first time many of his followers had ever seen him.
Baghdadi is said to have a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad, and was a mosque preacher in his hometown, Samarra. He also has an attractive pedigree, claiming to trace his ancestry to the Quraysh Tribe of the Prophet Muhammad.
Beyond that, almost every biographical point about Baghdadi is occluded by some confusion or another.
The Pentagon says that Baghdadi, after being arrested in Fallujah in early 2004, was released that December with a large group of other prisoners deemed to be low-level.
But Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who has researched Baghdadi’s life, sometimes on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, said that Baghdadi had spent five years in an American detention facility where, like many Islamic States fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalized. Hashimi said that Baghdadi grew up in a poor family in a farming village near Samarra, and that his family was Sufi – a strain of Islam known for its tolerance. He said Baghdadi came to Baghdad in the early 1990s, and over time became more radical.
Early in the insurgency, he gravitated toward a new jihadi group led by the flamboyant Jordanian militant operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Though Zarqawi’s group, al-Qaida in Iraq, began as a mostly Iraqi insurgent organization, it claimed allegiance to the global al-Qaida leadership, and over the years brought in more foreign leadership figures.
The American operation that killed Zarqawi in 2006 was a huge blow to the organization’s leadership. But it was years later that Baghdadi got his chance to take the reins.
The Sunni tribes of eastern Syria and Iraq’s Anbar and Ninevah provinces have long had ties that run deeper than national boundaries, and the Islamic State group was built on those relationships. Accordingly, as the group’s fortunes waned in Iraq, it found a new opportunity in the fight against President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.
As more moderate Syrian rebel groups were beaten down by the Syrian security forces and their allies, the Islamic State group increasingly took control of the fight, in part on the strength of weapons and funding from its operations in Iraq and from jihadist supporters in the Arab word.
That fact has led U.S. lawmakers and political figures, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, to accuse Obama of aiding the group’s rise in two ways: first with the complete American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, then by hesitating to arm more moderate Syrian opposition groups early in that conflict.
But well before then, American actions were critical to Baghdadi’s rise in more direct ways. He is Iraqi to the core, and his extremist ideology was sharpened and refined in the crucible of the U.S. occupation.
The American invasion presented Baghdadi and his allies with a ready-made enemy and recruiting draw. And the American ouster of Saddam Hussein, whose brutal dictatorship had kept a lid on extremist Islamist movements, gave Baghdadi the freedom for his radical views to flourish.
Syria may have been a temporary refuge and proving ground, but Iraq has always been his stronghold and the most important source of financing. Now, it has become the main venue for Baghdadi’s state-building exercise, as well.
Though he has captured territory through brutal means, Baghdadi has also taken practical steps at state-building, and even shown a lighter side. In Mosul, the Islamic State group has held a “fun day” for kids, distributed gifts and food during Eid al-Fitr, held Quran recitation competitions and started bus services and opened schools.
A senior Pentagon official said of Baghdadi, with grudging admiration: “He’s done a good job of rallying and organizing a beaten-down organization. But he may now be overreaching.”
But even before the civil war in Syria presented him with a growth opportunity, Baghdadi had been taking steps in Iraq – something akin to a corporate restructuring – that laid the foundation for the group’s resurgence, just as the Americans were leaving. He picked off rivals through assassinations, orchestrated prison breaks to replenish his ranks of fighters and diversified his sources of funding through extortion, to wean the group off outside funding from al-Qaida’s central authorities.
Now Baghdadi commands not just a terrorist organization, but, according to Brett H. McGurk, the top State Department official on Iraq policy, “a full-blown army.”
Speaking at a recent congressional hearing, McGurk said, “It is worse than al-Qaida.”