How ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Came to Be

The self-styled caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, delivers a sermon in Mosul, June 2014. “It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to [him] and support him,” reads an ISIS press release informing the world of his new title prior to the sermon. WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY

This article, written by Assistant Editor Alicia Kort, and other articles about America's assault on its greatest terrorist threat, is featured in Newsweek's new Special Edition, Killing ISIS.

In the span of a few years, the Islamic State transformed itself from one of the war-torn Middle East's many terrorist groups into an organization that controls not only an amount of territory larger than West Virginia, but the imagination and fears of the world. The word "ISIS" became a constant refrain in the chorus of the 24-hour news cycle and a regular topic of deliberation among the world's most powerful leaders. But despite the organization's undeniable impact, its leader, 45-year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has managed to stay in the shadows. Many of the major details of his biography are rife with rumors, misinformation, exaggeration and outright lies. With the exception of a few public appearances, most notably declaring himself caliph in the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 29, 2014, al-Baghdadi seems content to live under the radar, even as the organization he leads and inspires continues to command the world's attention.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in Samarra, a city in southern Iraq. Religion played an important part in the future extremist's life from an early age (reportedly, members of his family were preachers), and al-Baghdadi pursued the path of a devout scholar of his faith. The man described as bookish by childhood friends and nicknamed "The Believer," went on to get his Master's and Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, completing the latter in 2007.

Although al-Baghdadi had a resume more suitable for a graduate student than a terrorist mastermind, the young man found himself drawn to extremist movements. His deep scholarly knowledge would later make him extremely valuable to organizations looking to bolster their intellectual heft. In the wake of the American invasion in 2003, al-Baghdadi helped found a band of insurgents called Army of the People of the Sunna and Communal Solidarity, a Sunni militia violently opposed to the United States and its allies. He was arrested in Fallujah after visiting a friend and was deemed a "civilian detainee." "He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004," an anonymous Pentagon official told The New York Times in 2014. "It's hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he'd become head of ISIS." Al-Baghdadi spent less than a year in prison but used his time to make a variety of connections with his inmates, many of whom were deeply involved with Al Qaeda's Iraqi branch and would later become part of his inner circle. Shortly after he was released from prison, al-Baghdadi became a dedicated and effective member of Al Qaeda in Iraq during that group's campaign of sectarian carnage in the country.

Al-Baghdadi stepped into a leadership role as commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq in May 2010 after his predecessor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (no relation), was killed in a U.S. airstrike. The new leader didn't miss a step in waging his insurgency against American troops in Iraq, orchestrating a series of suicide bombings in 2011. Under al-Baghdadi's leadership Al Qaeda in Iraq formally and irrevocably split from the Al Qaeda brand, forging its own identity as the Islamic State.

Part of the reason would-be foot soldiers have flocked to al-Baghdadi lies with his ancestry. His claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad and his religious academic background give people faith he can create (and win) a modernday holy war. "It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief," al-Baghdadi said in an audio recording in 2015.

However, as the Islamic State has lost territory, al-Baghdadi and the leadership has faced new pressures. In the past year, half of al-Baghdadi's close associates and top lieutenants were killed. Within the organization, a cold fear took hold and, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS executed 38 of their members for allegedly being spies. But despite these challenges, The New York Times has reported that intelligence officials had discovered al-Baghdadi had devised succession plans in case he was assassinated, so it's possible if the head is cut off the snake, it will just grow back even stronger like the Hydra of Greek myth. Whether the United States and its allies are up to playing the role of Hercules and destroying al-Baghdadi's creation once and for all is the question that will define this generation.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, Killing ISIS, by Issue Editor James Ellis. For more about America's assault on its greatest terrorist threat, pick up a copy today.

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