Newsweek released a profile on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this week and several useful bits of information came to light. Some of my quotes were based on an assessment of him I wrote recently:
I highly doubt the claim that he was an active militant before 2003 (see Bruce Riedel’s claim) as we have seen very little evidence of any Iraqis being involved with jihadist groups before the US invasion. The claim that he is from the Badri family in Samarra has not been refuted so far but my limited research has not yielded any confirmation from Baghdad’s universities and colleges that a man with such a name obtained a doctorate from there as his supporters claim. Reports that he was a preacher at one of Samarra’s mosques have only been found in daesh propaganda and ‘biographies’ of him but I highly doubt he was a person of any repute, capability or credentials pre-2003 (partly because he was too young). I would not be surprised if he was not even a religious person as most of the Iraqis who became involved in jihadist groups were secular Baathists before 2003. I’m sure he served in the Iraqi army at some point (compulsory service) so had some basic military training and expect that he had good links with the Baathist security apparatus pre and post 2003 (partly through relatives), and came into contact with individuals who were actively forming cells based on models of Zarqawi’s JTJ to destabilise Iraq (which were largely based north of Baghdad and south of Samarra), which led to the formation of JJASJ of which he is claimed to have been a part.
The Americans detained him for most of 2004 in Camp Bucca as a ‘civilian internee’ which means he was linked to a terrorist group but not caught actively engaged in terrorist activities. They released him because he seemingly posed no threat at the time which again shows that he was not a notable figure at the time. It is known that radicalisation took place in Bucca (several daesh leaders were held there at the same time before eventual release) so Baghdadi’s rise began with his detainment where he met his future network and collaborators. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, the success of Zarqawi, the discontent of the Sunnis areas of Iraq would all have presented an opportunity for him to build on his new career as an insurgent. As an Iraqi he would be better able to coordinate with locals than foreigners which would explain his rise to prominence but most reports point to him only being a member of the sharia committees of JJASJ, then MSM, and then ISI, not as a commander of note. Because he was pretty much unknown between 2005-2010 I would not be surprised if he was held shortly at some point by the Iraqis and it is claimed that he was the MSM commander for the town of Rawa in Anbar province, and that he facilitated the entry of foreign fighters from Syria and Saudi Arabia into Iraq through that area. He probably has lived in Baghdad and Mosul at some point during these past few years but very few people got to meet him and those that did saw him wearing a mask. This was partly because of security (his predecessors and peers were all killed using tip-offs and intel) but I think he used the period 2010-2014 to beef up his religious knowledge and to build an aura of mystery around his character. His Friday prayer appearance showed a calm individual whose use of the Qur’an reflects a level of training and education that had prepared him for the occasion. His recorded audio speeches are edgier though and his dealings with JAN and AQ have shown that he views himself as superior and has a hint of disdain for non-Iraqis. The photos of him from his detainment in 2004 and the one released by the Iraqi Interior ministry earlier this year to me show an ambitious terrorist not a caliph. Baghdadi is a man who revels in his position as the world’s top terrorist and sees himself as the successor to Bin Laden. When he arrived in Camp Bucca he was scared and looking for a way out, now he commands a semi-functional ‘state’ and its army. His transformation was complete when he appeared in Mosul as the ‘caliph’ but it is obvious that much effort has gone into this over the years. Very little is known about his character and personal life but it is said that he is ruthless in his dealings, and quiet in person. He has at least two wives and is known to distance himself from all except very few trusted individuals. Paranoia dictates his behaviour and routine but the organisation around him has evolved without much direction from him, thereby leaving him as a useful figurehead without the danger of operational duties.
In summary, once you remove all the mystique and grandeur the ‘caliph’ turns out to be a rather ordinary man who saw his opportunity and took it. He is no different from the hundreds of other Iraqis who attempted to destroy the new Iraq and could have ended up as either violent criminal or faceless terrorist but instead now finds himself at the centre of the world’s attention. And both he and those around him will ensure it stays that way.