Soon after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed on Tuesday that it had confirmed that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, the US-led coalition issued a statement saying it could not confirm the reports but chided ISIS: “We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession, it will be needed.”
If Baghdadi isn’t dead, the coalition’s message is that he and his cohorts soon will be. It comes after the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and leaves us wondering why Baghdadi was such a key figure.
For the leader of a group that is being hunted by a 68-member US-led coalition, including by hundreds of thousands of fighters on the ground between Baghdad and northern Syria from numerous groups, relatively little is known about Baghdadi. Even when he led his fighters into Mosul in June of 2014, few recognized him. Imam Hamudi Omar al-Hilali, the preacher of Nuri mosque in the city, told the Rudaw Media Network that when Baghdadi came to declare the caliphate he was greeted by supporters but that “he wasn’t special.”
Details about his young years are foggy, and there are differing accounts of his birthday. Those who knew him claimed he was “insignificant” and went unnoticed as a young man. At some point during the era of Saddam Hussein he earned a doctorate in Baghdad. In 2004 he was detained by US forces near Falluja and released in the same year, considered an unimportant detainee. As a rising leader of the pre-ISIS group called Islamic State in Iraq, he avoided being killed during the US troop surge of 2007 and launched a wave of suicide attacks against Iraqi cities in 2011. During this period thousands of his fighters were killed, but his group was able to attract foreign fighters and set down roots in Syria after the rebellion against Bashar Assad began. In April 2013 the creation of ISIS was announced.
Baghdadi’s rise and the emergence of ISIS as more than just a terrorist group, but a terrorist army capable of controlling swaths of territory, was made possible by the vacuum of power between Mosul and Raqqa. This large expanse of mostly Sunni Arab territory had been a transit point for jihadists traveling to fight in Iraq. Baghdadi knew it from his time hiding out in Ba’aj near the Syrian border.
The area between Mosul and Ba’aj was one of the last areas to be retaken during the US surge. And it was never really retaken by the central Iraqi government.
ISIS succeeded through brutality. Instead of working with other jihadists, it attacked them, so that even al-Qaida cut ties. After taking over Raqqa it rolled into Mosul in June 2014, eventually capturing 2,300 vehicles abandoned by the Iraqi Army. It massacred more than 1,000 Shia and non-Muslim Iraqi Air Force cadets at Camp Speicher near Tikrit and 670 Shia prisoners at Badush Prison on June 10.
The unprecedented genocidal mass murder became a hallmark of ISIS and was certainly directed by Baghdadi as its emir and later caliph.
The declaration of the caliphate came on June 29, 2014. The Nuri mosque preacher recalls that it wasn’t Baghdadi that was central to the support ISIS received.
“The propaganda circulated by the social networking sites was the contributing factor. This made people long for the caliphate, Islam and security. In addition religious awareness was weak, which helped Baghdadi draw people to him in every way,” he told Rudaw.
He says people in Mosul who welcomed ISIS “were dreaming of change because of the immense pressure they were under... people dreamed of an Islamic caliphate, but on the right path.” What they got was ISIS, the systematic destruction of monuments, beheadings and strict rules.
In August 2014 ISIS attacked the Kurdish region of Iraq and massacred and sold into slavery thousands of Yazidis. In August/September it executed American journalist James Foley and American-Israel journalist Steven Sotloff. Massacres were committed across Iraq and Syria. They burned a Jordanian pilot alive in February 2015.
There is no evidence that Baghdadi was personally involved as a field commander, rather ISIS created a highly competent local command structure and streamlined supply lines. Even after ISIS was heavily attacked by air strikes and the ability of its commanders to move about was circumscribed, its factories were churning out mortars.
This local arms industry was unprecedented for any similar jihadist group. It seems that one must draw a line through its 2014 successes and decisions Baghdadi made, and the post-2015 ISIS.
The fact Baghdadi that played a key role in supporting sex slavery, which other jihadist groups, except Boko Haram, never did on a wide scale, is revealed by reports he forced US aid worker Kayla Mueller to marry him and assaulted her.
By 2015 reports that Baghdadi was wounded and had been killed began to circulate. He has been “killed” several times and badly wounded many other times. His whereabouts were also a mystery over the last few years, with reports of him fleeing Raqqa to Mosul and then leaving Mosul for the area of Ba’aj.
All these areas have been captured and Baghdadi has not been found. Since May 2015, when ISIS took over Ramadi and Palmyra, Baghdadi hasn’t really mattered, because ISIS inspires fighters across the world without his personal message, and has some 50,000 foreign volunteers, thousands of supporters throughout the world, affiliates in Sinai, and places in Asia and Africa.
Perhaps the real story with Baghdadi is that his facelessness has been a key to ISIS success. It’s not personality-driven.
It’s successes on social media don’t have an imprint of Baghdadi editing them and battles don’t seem to have his personal imprint, the way Hitler took personal interest in operations at the front. Hitler’s meddling made things worse for Germany; Baghdadi’s mysteriousness and willingness to order absolute brutalities may have aided ISIS. Unlike Saddam Hussein, found hiding in a hole, or Osama bin Laden, there may never be a body to be found.
In that the coalition is right: Everyone around Baghdadi should fear for their heads as well, because their leader is a kind of demonic shadow, but they are still flesh and blood.
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