How the Head of ISIS Got His Name

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Reuters

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Du’a, the Invisible Sheikh, Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarra: No matter what you call him, the leader of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, but that is more commonly known as ISIS, has become the most notorious terrorist leader since Osama Bin Laden. Unlike Bin Laden, al-Baghdadi rarely appears before his devoted soldiers and very rarely in video footage distributed to the outside world (it is this behavior that earned him the name “Invisible Sheikh.) Little is known about the terrorist mastermind, and a $10 million bounty has been offered for information leading to his capture. But from his name alone, one can glean a few clues to his background and character.

His first known name, likely a birth name, is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarra. “He is from Samarra, a town in northern Iraq where he was born, so this culturally becomes the last name,” says S. Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani ambassador to Syria who is now an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. The rest of the name is relatively common and, due simply to its length, quite forgettable, especially for non-Arabic speakers. When al-Samarra went to university, he changed his name to fit his new surroundings and the level of power he craved: al-Baghdadi for Baghdad. “Al-Baghdadi has much more resonance, it has recognition,” said Hassan.

Now going by the name al-Baghdadi, he earned an Islamic studies degree from the Islamic University of Baghdad and became a cleric. To match the big last name, he needed an even more powerful first name, and settled on Abu Bakr. The most famous Abu Bakr was the prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and his chief adviser. He also went on to become caliph, a role the ISIS leader claims he now holds. “Abu Bakr is easily identifiable because he was the successor to Muhammad,” noted Hassan.  

The name resonates with Muslims around the world, including with locals who ISIS is attempting to recruit. “ISIS is very aware of the Muslim psychology, they pick names that are very meaningful to the Islamic people. It is a very significant and smart choice for what he wants,” said Mohamed Elmenshawy, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert and professor at St. John’s University. “Abu Bakr was not picked at random, it has become a tradition to acquire, or give oneself, a powerful war name.”

Though war names are common, al-Baghdadi has picked an unusual one. Layachi tells Newsweek the typical war name is the place the soldier is born, where they became famous, or the name of a family member, usually a son. (Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, for example, is known as Abu Mazen, which means father of Mazen.) The ISIS leader, instead, picked two extremely significant Islamic names, guaranteeing his name would be remembered as he rose to power. “I can’t think of any other person who has taken this name, a name like this even. He has chosen this name carefully,” explained Hassan, noting that even Osama Bin Laden selected his name based on family lineage.

Al-Baghdadi seems to have wanted a name that was extremely noticeable, easy to remember and directly tied to the Islamic world. “It is about developing a corporate image,” explained Hassan. “No one has been able to form an organization like ISIS before, it is a corporation on the upswing, making a million dollars a day from oil fields. ISIS, like al-Baghdadi, everyone knows it now.”