Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

Baghdadi: how a little-known extremist became the leader of ISIS

Before the release of a video on Monday, the elusive terrorist hadn't been seen publicly since 2014

A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, resurfaced on Monday in a video where he said the terrorist organisation was responsible for the recent Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that killed 250 people.

It was, he said, “part of the revenge” that awaits the West.

The shadowy character spoke on the terrorist organisation’s media network, conceding that ISIS had lost the war in Baghouz and congratulating militants in Libya for a deadly attack earlier this month on the southern desert town of Fuqaha.

Many thought Al Baghdadi was dead, and he has not been seen publicly since 2014. Over the past few years, several different stories have emerged about his demise.

In 2017, Russia claimed that they blew him to pieces and other news reports said he suffered a crippling spinal injury. Still other reports have suggested he has been in ill health or wounded in attacks.

But in Monday’s footage the militant appears healthy, raising questions of his whereabouts.

A bearded man with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's appearance speaks in this screen grab taken from video released on April 29, 2019. Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters TV
A bearded man with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's appearance speaks in this screen grab taken from video released on April 29, 2019. Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters TV

Al Qaeda past

Al Baghdadi went from relatively unknown beginnings to become the most wanted man in the world.

After the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003, Al Baghdadi founded the militant group Jamaat Jaysh Ahl Al Sunnah wa l Jamaah, in which he served as head of the Sharia committee.

He preached at the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque in Samarra after receiving his PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, with a focus on Islamic culture, history, Sharia and jurisprudence.

In February 2004, when Al Baghdadi was arrested by US forces in Iraq near Fallujah, he was still relatively unknown.

He was detained while visiting the home of his old student friend, Nessayif Nessayif, who was also on the US wanted list at the time.

Al Baghdadi was released at the end of the year for lack of evidence. Iraqi security forces arrested him again twice, in 2007 and 2012, but let him go because they didn’t know who he was.

An Iraqi man holds printed profiles of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and his deputy Abd Al Rahman Al Qaduli released by Iraq authorities on February 6, 2018. AFP
An Iraqi man holds printed profiles of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and his deputy Abd Al Rahman Al Qaduli released by Iraq authorities on February 6, 2018. AFP

In 2005, Al Baghdadi pledged allegiance to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Iraq's Al Qaeda terrorist group.

Al Zarqawi was killed in a US drone strike in 2006 and eventually Al Bagdhadi became leader in 2010.

The Iraqi division of Al Qaeda was also known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which expanded into Syria in 2013 and declared independence from Al Qaeda in February 2014 after an eight-month power struggle.

Establishment of “caliphate”

On June 29 2014, ISIS announced the establishment of a worldwide “caliphate” and Al Baghdadi was named its leader.

Since declaring himself leader of the terrorist organisation, he has evaded the public eye. He was last seen delivering a sermon at Mosul's Al Nuri Grand Mosque in 2014, where he declared the extremists' "caliphate" over Syria and Iraq.

 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. Militant video via AP
 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. Militant video via AP

He is one of the few senior ISIS commanders still at large after two years of defeats in which its territory shrank from an area the size of Britain to a tiny speck in the Euphrates River valley.

The recent video, believed by security experts to be mainly recorded in early April and updated after the Sri Lanka attacks, shows Al Baghdadi trying to exert control over the terrorist group.

The look of the video resembles that of earlier footage of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, with the same type of AK-74 assault rifle in the background.

Al Baghdadi tries to carry across the same air of wisdom but unlike bin Laden, he keeps a low profile and is not regarded as a charismatic orator.

Al Baghdadi, who is believed to have three wives, has been accused of repeatedly raping girls and women he kept as "sex slaves".

They include a pre-teen Yazidi girl and abducted US aid worker Kayla Mueller, who was later murdered.

Al Baghdadi's whereabouts has never been confirmed, although he may have inadvertently compromised his location with his most recent video.

Some analysts believe he is being hosted by a country neighbouring Syria or Iraq.

Although Washington is still trying to confirm the video’s authenticity, the ISIS leader has returned to the international spotlight.

Updated: April 30, 2019 08:24 AM

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