Baghdadi’s terrifying rise from football-obsessed student to self-styled caliph

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a speech at the Grand Mosque al-Nuri in June 2014.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a speech at the Grand Mosque al-Nuri in June 2014. Screengrab of IS group propaganda video, Reuters

The man the world came to know as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized on the conflict, chaos and mismanagement in his native Iraq to propel himself from a low-level prisoner in US detention to one of the world’s most dangerous terror chiefs.


On February 4, 2004, US forces in Iraq detained a man who was visiting a known al Qaeda operative in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah. Iraq’s “Sunni triangle” region at that time was teeming with jihadists and former Baathists fighting American troops and US military intelligence officials in the country had an extensive list of wanted men. But the detained man was unknown to US military officials at that time.

A photograph of the detainee, taken the day he was arrested, featured the sweaty, plump face of a bearded man with thick eyebrows, dark eyes and a prominent nose.

Handout pictures released by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Iraqi Ministry of Interior
Handout pictures released by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Iraqi Ministry of Interior AFP Archive

His name was Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri and his civilian occupation in the detainee personnel record was noted as “administrative work (secretary)”. This time, the mugshot on the form featured the prisoner in silver-rimmed glasses, which knocked out the menace of the brooding eyes. His prisoner serial number was listed as US9IZ-157911CI.


US detainee personnel form of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
US detainee personnel form of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Brookings Institute


It was to prove useful in the years to come as the man with the dark eyes rose up jihadist ranks to become one of the world’s most wanted men, an elusive leader of a terrorist group that has conducted deadly attacks in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and South Asia.

Along the way, the former detainee took up – or was bestowed – many aliases, noms de guerre and titles.
By the time of his death, during a US special forces raid in the Syria’s Idlib province, the jihadist leader was known across the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

For his followers, Baghdadi was a “caliph” – a title he conferred on himself a decade after his Fallujah arrest. On that fateful day in June 2014, when Baghdadi strode into the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared himself the spiritual leader of Muslims, the man with the thick eyebrows looked very different from the one in the US detainee personnel form. The beard had grown longer and grey in parts, the garb was an outlandish all-black affair with a flowing robe topped by a turban.

Five years later, the grandiosity and affectation was cut down to size when the man who proclaimed himself caliph once again got caught in the US military’s crosshairs. This time, they would not let him go. Announcing his death on Sunday, US President Donald Trump said Baghdadi’s last moments were spent in utter fear with the terror chief “whimpering and crying” before he died as “a coward, running and crying”.

It was an ignominious, but in a way predictable end for a man who began his life steeped in religious scholarship before straying into violent jihad and turning into a deadly global threat.

Football-obsessed Islamic studies student

Baghdadi was born in 1971 in the central Iraqi city of Samarra to a deeply religious family. His father is said to have taken an active role in the religious life of the community, teaching Koranic recitation to children. The family name suggests that they hailed from the Al-Bu Badri tribe, although Baghdadi would later claim he hailed from the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammed.

He graduated from Samarra High School in 1991 and started his university years following the first Gulf War, when Iraq’s then ruler, Saddam Hussein, was attempting to burnish his religious credentials by promoting and funding Islamic studies and preachers.

At university in the capital, Baghdad, the young man, who was then known as Ibrahim al-Badri, did his masters in Koranic recitation, according to William McCants, a fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Center for Middle East Policy and author of the book, “The Believer”.

Accounts of Baghdadi’s early life are often sketchy and sometimes contradictory, an outcome of sources that range from jihadist “biographers” offering inaccurate information to childhood associates reluctant to talk to journalists and researchers.

But most sources agree that Baghdadi was a football enthusiast. “He was obsessed with scoring goals; he would become nervous if he didn’t,” a childhood associate from the Tobji neighbourhood of northwestern Baghdad, where Baghdadi lived as a university student, told Al Monitor’s Ali Hashem.

‘Maradona’ in prison circles

As a student, Baghdadi got involved in, or joined, the Muslim Brotherhood and it was in these circles that the young man came in contact with Islamist fighters who had returned from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

By the time the US began its military operation in Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi had established links in Iraq’s Salafi circles. During the Sunni insurgency, he was involved in the insurgent Jaysh al-Sunna w’al-Jamaah group.

But when US military officials arrested him in Fallujah the next year, they obviously did not known their prisoner was a jihadist, listing him instead as a civilian detainee and accepting his explanation that he was just an admin man or secretary.

Baghdadi was detained in Abu Ghraib and later, Camp Bucca, two US-run detention centres in Iraq, where fellow inmates told journalists he earned the nickname “Maradona,” after the Argentine star, for his football skills.

But it was not just prison games that beckoned the swarthy detainee. At Camp Bucca, Baghdadi was in close proximity with senior jihadist figures who would prove critical for the young man’s rapid rise in the region’s militant Islamist circles.

Contrary to many media reports, which state that Baghdadi was in US detention from 2004 to 2009, the Islamic studies student actually spent less than a year in detention. US detention records show that serial number US9IZ-157911CI was set free in December 2004, after the Combined Review and Release Board recommended the release of the “low-level” prisoner.

It was a decision that would be frequently weighed and counterweighed in retrospect.

Doctoral thesis by day, jihad by night

Once out of prison, Baghdadi plunged into the thick of the jihadist fight against US troops in Iraq. The anti-US insurgency was reaching its most brutal phase as al Qaeda established an Iraqi affiliate -- called al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) -- under the leadership of Jordanian convict-turned-jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Despite his involvement in jihadist groups, Baghdadi managed to complete his thesis on Koranic recitation for which he was granted a PhD in 2007.

The Islamic scholarship credentials were useful following the 2006 killing of Zarqawi by a US air strike. The Jordanian former convict’s brutality and lack of education had been a source of consternation for al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, and senior al Qaeda members were concerned about the widespread disgust across the Muslim world over Zarqawi’s atrocities.

Baghdadi’s scholarly credentials were welcomed by AQI’s new leader and senior officials. Little did they know that their protégée would take revulsion levels to new heights after he had succeeded or sidelined them.

Seizing the Syrian uprising, backstabbing a friend

By the time the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in 2011, Baghdadi was the emir of what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq. Sensing an opportunity in the Syrian battlefield, Baghdadi dispatched a trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Muhammed al-Jolani (also spelt Julani or Golani) to set up operations across the Iraq-Syria border.

In Syria, Jolani set up the group Jabhat al-Nusra, which was meant to be al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
But Baghdadi had other plans. Ignoring national borders, he declared Nusra was part of his group, which he renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The move infuriated al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman a-Zawahiri, ensconced somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, forcing him to expel Baghdadi’s group from al Qaeda in February 2014.

The dismissal made little difference to Baghdadi, it only succeeded in turbocharging his jihadist rise.

Much to the surprise of counterterror experts, Baghdadi’s group succeeded in waging battles against its jihadist rivals such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria while simultaneously taking advantage of the mismanagement in his native Iraq.

Aided by a corrupt government in Baghdad and low morale in Iraqi army ranks, Baghdadi’s group conducted a lightening sweep through central Iraq, culminating in the shocking June 2014 fall of Mosul.

‘Caliphate’ based in Raqqa with global operatives

Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate in Mosul’s Grand Mosque of al-Nuri was followed by a reign of terror conducted from his base in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

At its height, the Islamic State (IS) group controlled territory that stretched from the central Iraqi river plains, past the Nineveh plain and the Sinjar mountains across the Syrian border to the desert ruins of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.

The atrocities conducted by his henchmen were on a biblical scale, including the mass sexual enslavement of Yazidi women, decapitation of prisoners (including US and British citizens), burning a Jordanian pilot to death, and punishments that included hacking limbs for minor infractions in the self-declared caliphate.

"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had a real vision of a society in which everyone had a role to play, including women and children, whether they were little boys – who were led into combat and forced to commit abominable acts with some being transformed into executioners – or little girls, who were sold and raped from the age of 7 or 8," explained Sofia Amara, author of the book "Baghdadi, calife de la terreur” in an October 2018 interview with FRANCE 24.

The terror spread across the world with IS group recruiters targeting citizens from the Arab world, Europe, Russia and Asia and indoctrinating them to conduct attacks in their home countries.

IS group attacks outside the “caliphate” included the deadly 2015 Paris attacks, the 2016 Brussels attack and the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka.

Baghdadi’s death however is not expected to spell an end to the terror.

The organisational strategy of empowering individuals to conduct attacks autonomously, a multitude of regional branches -- including in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Libya -- will ensure the IS group does not die with Baghdadi. In the Syrian conflict zone, the escape of IS group prisoners from detention camps run by Syrian Kurds following the Turkish invasion could mean a number of high value militants are now at large.

“Everything has been done to ensure that the organisation survives its leader," explained Amara.

Baghdadi’s death may be a symbolic victory for Trump, but his grotesque legacy is likely to live on.


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