DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — He has commanded a relentless bombing campaign against Iraqi civilians, orchestrated audacious jailbreaks of fellow militants and expanded his hard-line Islamist organization’s reach deep into neighbouring Syria.
While his may not be a household name, the shadowy figure known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has emerged as one of the world’s most lethal terrorist leaders. He is a renegade within al-Qaida whose maverick streak eventually led its central command to sever ties, deepening a rivalry between his organization and the global terror network.
Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is the main driver of destabilizing violence in Iraq and until recently was the main al-Qaida affiliate there. Al-Qaida’s general command formally disavowed the group this week, saying it “is not responsible for its actions.”
Al-Baghdadi took over leadership of al-Qaida’s main Iraq franchise following a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in April 2010 that killed the terror group’s two top figures inside Iraq at their safe house near Tikrit, once Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Vice-President Joe Biden at the time called the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri a “potentially devastating blow” to al-Qaida in Iraq.
But as in the past, al-Qaida in Iraq has proved resilient. Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, it has come roaring back stronger than it was before he took over.
The man now known as al-Baghdadi was born in Samarra, about 95 kilometres north of Baghdad, in 1971, according to a United Nations sanctions list. That would make him 42 or 43 years old.
Al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre for a man identified as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. The U.S. is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.
He is believed to have been operating from inside Syria in recent months, though his current whereabouts aren’t known. Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim said authorities believe he was in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, as recently as three weeks ago, but he moves around frequently so as not to be captured.
What little else that is known publicly about al-Baghdadi comes from a brief biography posted in July to online jihadist forums.
According to that account, al-Baghdadi is a married preacher who earned a doctorate from Baghdad’s Islamic University. The biography linked him to several prominent tribes and said he comes from a religious family, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist sites.
He rose to prominence as a proponent of the Salafi jihadi movement, which advocates “holy war” to bring about a strict version of Shariah law, in Samarra and the nearby Diyala province.
The biography linked him to Samarra’s mosque of Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal, which according to one resident, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, was a key hub for al-Qaida decision-making in 2005 and 2006.
Samarra, like Diyala a hotbed for al-Qaida activity, was the scene of the 2006 bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine. That attack was blamed on al-Qaida and set off years of retaliatory bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite extremists.
Al-Baghdadi’s leadership of the Iraqi al-Qaida operation coincided with the final year and a half of the American military presence in Iraq. The U.S. withdrawal in December 2011 left Iraq with a precarious security vacuum that he was able to exploit.
“Al-Baghdadi has managed a remarkable recovery and re-growth in Iraq and expansion into Syria. In so doing, Baghdadi has become somewhat of a celebrity figure within the global jihadist community,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center.