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In April 2010, the U.S. scored another big blow, killing al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Abdullah Rashid Baghdadi as he hid in a safe house in Tikrit.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally announced the killing as officials spoke of the demise of al Qaeda in Iraq.

The assessment was premature. Abu Abdullah Rashid Baghdadi’s death marked the last major hit against AQI and its new Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The U.S. troop presence grew short, and counterterrorism was being handed over to the Iraqis, who would prove to be incompetent.

Al-Baghdadi, a reclusive leader rarely mentioned in the news media, took over. Based in Mosul, he showed himself to be as ruthless as his forerunners but perhaps more visionary. He viewed the organization as not just terrorists but as an army that could take territory and form an Islamic nation, or caliphate. And he assembled a potent propaganda machine.

He molded his fighters in his image — Muslims willing to inflict mass killings and beheadings on other Muslims in the name of Allah and harsh Shariah law.

Al-Baghdadi’s work as a foreign fighter facilitator early in the Iraq insurgency provided the connections he needed to build a 10,000-strong army that could exploit the Syrian civil war across the border while surging for a major offensive inside Iraq.

Waves of attacks

When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, he sprung a new war against Baghdad, conducting assassinations and deploying car bombs in synchronized attacks.

As head of the then-ISI, he announced the start of the “Destroying the Walls” campaign of violence to wrest control of northern Iraqi cities.

“Two days later, a massive wave of attacks struck over 20 Iraqi [cities] and left more than 115 dead,” said a report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “The ‘Destroying the Walls’ campaign indicates the degree to which ISI has grown in its ability to plan, coordinate and execute attacks since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.”

Displaying a new ability to coordinate attacks, ISI detonated 30 vehicle bombs nearly simultaneously in 20 different cities. More waves of attacks followed as Iraqi forces showed themselves to be incapable of finding and targeting terrorists despite years of U.S. guidance.

A former Pentagon official called the Iraqis “the best checkpoint army in the world,” meaning they had no stomach for dangerous counterterrorism raids.

Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war had begun in the spring of 2011. Al-Baghdadi’s fighters began moving freely from Iraq to Syria and back as his army swelled. Thus was born the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the precursor of the Islamic State.

“ISIL is the new face of al Qaeda and radical Islam,” said retired Army Gen. John Keane, an adviser to U.S. commanders during the Iraq counterinsurgency. “They are accomplishing what the 9/11 al Qaeda always dreamed about until they overreached and attacked the American people. ISIL intends to destabilize the Middle East and then dominate it regardless of whether a country [has] a Shia or Sunni majority.”

‘More capable, dangerous’

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