Baghdadi: the leader but not the lifeblood of IS

Baghdadi: the leader but not the lifeblood of IS
Analysis: Reports of his death have long been exaggerated. But even if he was hit, it would by no means end the Islamic State group, says Graeme Baker.
5 min read
21 April, 2015
The Islamic State would not die if Baghdadi was killed

Standing in the grand mosque of Mosul, dressed in the black robes of the Abbasids, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi cut an imposing figure as he declared his Islamic 'caliphate'. His leadership, he said, was a heavy burden, but it was a calling from God.

With those words in Mosul on 5 July 2014, Baghdadi became the figurehead for the most fearsome extremist group of the 21st century, a self-styled 'Islamic State', whose stunning advances in Syria and Iraq were fuelled by a conviction as fierce as the brutality and murder on which it thrived. It also set him up as the number one target for his enemies.

     Baghdadi's role in the rise of his group is unquestioned. But he is not the be all and end all.

The sermon was the first public appearance of "Khalifa Ibrahim", and according to reports on Tuesday, it may turn out to be his last. Iraqi officials and media reports state that he was seriously injured in an air raid in northern Iraq in March. According to sources, Baghdadi was hiding in Baaj, an area that has long been a safe haven for rebels and opposition groups.

If the reports prove true, and his injuries are fatal, it brings an end to the short and severe tenure of the first leader of the Islamic State group. But the loss of Baghdadi will by no means signal the end of IS.

There have been many previous claims that Baghdadi was injured or killed. The Iraqi government has led the way, insisting on several occasions that he had been wounded. Indeed, it even stated that the man at the podium in Mosul in July 2014 was an imposter - Baghdadi had been injured days before in battle. Not so.

In November 2014, the Iraqi government insisted he had been injured in an airstrike in the north of the country. But the blurred pictures released could have been of anyone.

In January 2015, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said Baghdadi had been injured in an airstrike near the Syrian border, and that it was a "miracle" that he had survived. That attack may have been close to its target, but only killed one of Baghdadi's closest aides.

Many times claimed, and many times falsely.

A rapid rise

Baghdadi's rise was rapid, evolving from a small-time fighter to "Khalifa Ibrahim" in a matter of a few years. Before his grand entrance in Mosul, the only publicly available image of him was a mugshot from the early 2000s.

Baghdadi was born Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarri to a religious family in Samarra in 1971. He studied Islamic doctrine at Baghdad University in the 1990s and it is likely he held a religious position when the US invaded in 2003.

It is believed that soon after Baghdadi began fighting in Anbar, the stronghold of Tawhid and Jihad led by the Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Reports suggest that Baghdadi was involved in smuggling fighters across from Syria while also leading the Sharia courts set up by Zarqawi.

However, Baghdadi was arrested by US forces in 2006, and held in Camp Bucca, the main US-run prison in Iraq. It was there he began to mix with a hardcore of religiously inspired extremists and after his release in the late 2000s, he joined the Islamic State of Iraq, the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq whose methods and ferocious attacks on civilians of all sects had been condemned by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Baghdadi climbed the ranks inside the organisation, no doubt helped by his religious education, before being declared leader in 2010 after his predecessor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US airstrike.

It was from here that he set about creating a vision that even al-Qaeda opposed. Renaming the group the Islamic State in Iraq was a forewarning of the intention to move from low-level guerrilla operations to the creation of a territorial entity. Baghdadi looked to Syria and the developing war to push his vision, sending his lieutenant, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, to create the Nusra Front, a linked but independent group that would fight the Assad regime.

Not the be all and end all

     Baghdadi looked to Syria and the developing war to push his vision, sending his lieutenant to create the Nusra Front.

In 2013, he declared Nusra a part of his Islamic State project, which was now called the Islamic State of the Levant (or Iraq and Syria). Baghdadi moved to Syria and ignored pronouncements by the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that the merger with Nusra was invalid.

Within the year, Baghdadi pronounced Zawahiri as weak and unable to bring about an Islamic state. On the ground, his ever growing forces had secured Raqqa in Syria as the new capital. From there, they blitzed on to Mosul, the symbolic destruction of the Syria-Iraq border and the declaration of the 'caliphate'.

Baghdadi's role in the rise of his group is unquestioned. His methods and his ideology have determined its trajectory. But he is not the be all and end all. Indeed, the German newspaper Der Spiegel only this week claimed that the Islamic State group was the brainchild of a former Saddam-era spy, and that Baghdadi was a pawn in a process that had been mapped out many years ago by Iraqi Baathists bent on regaining what had been lost in the US invasion.

So structured is the modern Islamic State group, with councils for everything from media to flour deliveries, it would be difficult to suggest that the death of Baghdadi, how significant that may be, will spell the end for what is essentially a functioning state spread across huge chunks of Syria and Iraq.

Its higher levels are staffed by capable military and administrative officials. Whether, upon Baghdadi's death, there is a power struggle within remains to be seen, but the candidates for successor are many and the Islamic State group will continue to hold its territory, and continue to prosecute its vicious war on anyone in its way.

And as we have seen previously, reports of his death and injury have often been somewhat exaggerated.