By Jason Burke
Nov 29, 2015
A hagiography and former associates have described Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, as a devout, quiet youth. The truth is that we do not really know what the future leader of the Islamic State was like as a child or young man. We know he was born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971. We know too that his parents were neither very rich nor very poor and that the family lived in the Al-Jibriya district of the city, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. We know, from al-Baghdadi’s graduation certificate, that he did poorly in English, extremely well in mathematics and decently in most other subjects.
School was followed by several years at the Islamic University of Baghdad. Quite what he studied is not entirely clear, though it seems likely that, as supporters claim, he obtained a series of degrees, culminating in a PhD in Islamic studies. Through the 1990s al-Baghdadi appears to have been living in Tobchi, a mixed Shia and Sunni neighbourhood on the western edges of the Iraqi capital, among the outlying districts which would become a battlefield after the US invasion of 2003. He may have been preaching and teaching in a local mosque. A picture from around this time shows an impassive, bearded man with a broad forehead, smallish sharp eyes and narrow lips. Much remains unclear about al-Baghdadi’s background, but what we do know is this: the environment in which he grew up during his formative years was one of religious resurgence, increasing regime brutality and corruption, ruinous Western-backed sanctions and air strikes, and extremist proselytisation. All, of course, before the invasion of 2003.
In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Baghdadi appears to have helped establish one of the first entirely indigenous militant groups motivated by extremist Islam. This drew recruits from tribal networks and neighbours in his home town and surrounding villages. Al-Baghdadi, now aged thirty-two, was picked up apparently by chance in a US sweep and interned in Camp Bucca, a vast prison built outside the southern port city of Basra. In prison he ran a sharia court, led prayers and impressed fellow inmates, guards and a US-appointed jail psychologist with his calm, quiet, serious sense of purpose. He was released from Camp Bucca after nearly a year of detention in late 2004. By 2006, he appears to have gained some kind of official position on the ‘sharia council’ of ISI, perhaps acting as a key adviser to the group’s leadership. In 2010, he was appointed the new ‘emir’. This decision may not have been entirely due to his own ability or, perhaps, charisma. There is much evidence he was selected, over many older and more experienced figures, because he had religious credentials and a quiet authority which other figures, particularly a number of former senior Ba’athists involved in the group at the time, lacked.
Many of these former officials were extremely competent men, with long experience in Saddam’s military or intelligence services followed by almost a decade of violent insurgency. Nor was their adherence to extremist Islam superficial or pragmatic. It is very likely that some had been sympathetic to hardline ideas well before 2003, but, despite Saddam’s tilt towards religion in the 1990s, had probably judged it impolitic to be too overt about their faith. It certainly should be no surprise that in post-invasion Iraq, Sunni Ba’athist officials and soldiers, forcibly demobilised and under occupation, in deteriorating economic conditions, who were engaged in an insurgency against the US and then a bitter sectarian civil war, who had seen friends and relatives killed by US troops or Shia militia, who had often been detained by the US military or Iraqi authorities for significant periods, and who had been surrounded by varying forms of anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Shia propaganda for their entire lives, should turn to radical Islam. The former Ba’athists brought a hard edge of military capability, organisational experience and, often, an understanding of how to run both a state and a military campaign that many Islamists lacked. There had been reports of such collaboration as early as 2004 or 2005. According to Martin Chulov, the Middle East correspondent for the Guardian and one of the best-informed reporters in the region, this cooperation had matured into a true partnership around 2008 or 2009. It would continue to deepen after al-Bagdadi’s appointment as leader of ISI, with former Ba’athists coming to fill many of the most senior positions in the group. In the June 2014 offensive against Mosul, a network of former Ba’athists led by the notorious Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president in Saddam’s Iraq and the man who had masterminded the faith campaign in the 1990s, provided invaluable assistance to ISI fighters. As a reward, a former Ba’athist general was appointed governor of Mosul after its fall. Al-Douri praised ‘the heroes and knights of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’, thus substantiating a link between Saddam Hussein and the group founded by bin Laden, al-Qaeda, nearly twelve years after the connection, non-existent at the time, was used to justified the invasion of Iraq.
In time, further support for ISI came from Sunni tribes. Systematic discrimination, marginalisation and a series of broken promises had pushed Iraq’s Sunnis back into open opposition to central government by the time of the elections of 2010 after which al-Maliki managed to hang on to power. Not all were aligned with ISI’s goals by any means, but, in the shifting matrix of local conflict politics, many could make common cause at least temporarily. One particularly damaging failing of al-Maliki was his short-sighted treatment of those Sunnis who had earlier joined the anti-extremist Awakening Councils. These had often been organised by individual tribes and sub-tribes. Seeing them as a potential threat, al-Maliki undermined them, leaving them unemployed, unpaid and unprotected. As early as 2010, ISI had been targeting such fighters with the carrot of better pay than the government offered and the stick of an extremely unpleasant death in the case of refusal. The effort was part of a broader programme of outreach to tribes. Analysts Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss describe an ISI tactic of offering leaders of minor tribes, or emerging younger leaders in major ones, control over an important resource, such as a particularly lucrative racket or smuggling route, if they pledged their support to the group and eliminated its opponents in their communities. Al-Maliki eased the task of al-Baghdadi and his associates by continuing to stoke the Sunnis’ sense that they were targets of a regional campaign of annihilation. In 2013, security forces sent by the prime minister to clear Sunni protesters in Hawija, a town in the north of Iraq, killed scores and injured many more. The incident prompted armed clashes across much of the country. Increasingly, all ISI’s leaders had to do was to organise and direct the fragmented elements of a rapidly reviving insurgency. Even in mid-2014, according to some estimates, only a third of ISI’s combat strength was actually supplied by members of the group while the rest were fighters from other networks who were happy to join its armed columns as literal fellow travellers.
This was of particular importance when the leaders of ISI were presented with an extraordinary opportunity to expand into Syria. The strategic decision to exploit this unforeseen chance may also have originated with the Ba’athists within the group’s ranks. It led to a final break with al-Qaeda and fuelled the bitter rivalry between the two groups that exists today. It was critical to the emergence of the Islamic State as an independent, distinct entity, as well as of course to its eventual bid to re-establish a Sunni caliphate across a significant swathe of the Middle East, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by an Islamic group.40 It is a historical irony that this was only made possible by a series of uprisings led by people who explicitly rejected extremist Islam.
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The ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab uprisings’ began in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a Tunisian grocer, an act of spectacular violence designed to communicate a very clear message and inspire others, but one, in contrast to those orchestrated by Islamic militants over the previous decade, which harmed no one else. With their words and their deeds, the crowds that took to the streets in a succession of cities and towns across the Middle East over the following months reinforced the impression that al-Qaeda and all it stood for had been marginalised. The slogans in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, in Tunis and in Manama were for democracy and human rights, not for the establishment of an Islamic state. Religion remained hugely powerful as a political, social and cultural force, but the uprisings that roiled the region through 2011 and into 2012 seemed to stand in stark opposition to Islamic militancy.