Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: How an obscure Iraqi academic became the leader of the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video released in 2019.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video released in 2019. Copyright ReutersCrowcroft, Orlando
By Orlando Crowcroft
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Born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badr, Baghdadi rose to lead the brutal militant group in Iraq and Syria.


Born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badri in 1971 in the Iraqi city of Samarra, firmly inside the country’s so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the son of a Quranic teacher who was described as “withdrawn, taciturn and, when he spoke, barely audible.”

Even at a young age, Baghdadi was known as ‘the Believer’, according to a 2015 profile by Brookings, and spent most of his time in the local mosque and quick to criticise his siblings and other family members who strayed from the strict tenants of Islamic law.

But he was also known as a keen footballer, referred to by others on his team at the local mosque as ‘our Messi’, after the star Argentinian football player, Lionel Messi.

He studied Quranic recitation at the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, a highly selective programme in Baghdad, Brookings reported, and went on to study for a doctorate. During his time at university he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab movement that seeks to establish states based on Islamic law which was then - as now - banned in many states.

Baghdadi gravitated towards the more extreme side of the Brotherhood in Baghdad, which was dominated by Salafis, Islamist hardliners dedicated to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and to jihad, the waging of war against rulers that they considered had betrayed the Muslim faith.

Camp Bucca

After the U.S. invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein in 2003, Baghdadi fell in with the Sunni militias that were formed in the chaos of post-war Iraq to fight the American occupation.

He was jailed at Camp Bucca in 2004 and, while inside, made a name for himself as a preacher and footballer in the prison yard - this time gaining the nickname of ‘Maradona,” according to a detailed profile of Baghdadi by Al Monitor.

During his tine in Camp Bucca, he established ties with al-Qaeda in Iraq and many of the men who would go in to become leading figures in its offshoot, the Isalmic State of Iraq. In 2010, when the leaders of the group were killed in an air strike, Baghdadi became its leader.

In 2011, he expanded the group into Syria, changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. After the beginning of the war in Syria, and rise of jihadi groups that followed the revolution, ISIS exploited the power vaccuum to seize major towns and cities, including Raqqa.

Then, in 2014, ISIS entered the world stage when it seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. In his only televised speech, from the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Mosque, Baghdadi announced the foundation of the caliphate, with himself as caliph. The group went on to seize swathes of northern Iraq and even at one point threaten the capital, Baghdad,

Air strike

Rumours of Baghdadi’s death had arisen as far back as 2015, when it was reported that he had been badly wounded in an air strike in al-Baaj, near Mosul, in Iraq. It was later reported that Baghdadi was so badly injured that he would “never lead the organisation” again.

After the air strike, Baghdadi moved from Mosul to Raqqa, in Syria, where he kept a low profile, travel secretly and avoided the public eye. He appeared only in audio messages to ISIS supporters, in 2015, 2016 and 2017, making sure to mention current events in order to quash rumours of his death. His final broadcast came in September 2019.

During that time, ISIS’s fortunes rise and fell in Syria and Iraq. The group was pushed out of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Eventually ISIS’s final stronghold in the Syrian town of Baghouz was retaken in 2019, and many of its supporters - including many foreign nationals - are currently being held in refugee camps in northern Syria.

How Baghdadi planned to get to Turkey or where he would go when he got to the country is unclear, but the ISIS leader will have known at time was running out. Despite his reclusive nature , he was arguably the world’s most wanted man, with $25 million U.S. bounty on his head.

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