- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

U.S. officials monitoring the fast-shifting landscape of al Qaeda-inspired militancy in the Middle East in recent years have been on the lookout for a single figure who might emerge to match the jihadist charisma and global mystique once held over Sunni Muslim extremists by Osama bin Laden.

The name on many lips this week is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — the elusive, cutthroat and unconditionally feared leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is now wreaking havoc in Iraq.

While al-Baghdadi has had a $10 million State Department bounty on his head since 2011, he remained largely out of the global spotlight until this week, when his followers swiftly seized control of vast territory in Iraq, including a major section of Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city.

SEE ALSO: Obama considers more aid to Iraq after stunning militant attacks

Images of bin Laden wearing a signature beard, turban and flowing white robes became known around globe after 9/11, but al-Baghdadi’s rise has been as shadowy as it has been bloody.

Few confirmed photographs of the ISIL leader exist. One, a grainy passport-style headshot of a youngish Arab man with closely cropped hair, an intense stare and an Al Capone-like smirk on his lips, sits atop al-Baghdadi’s declassified case file at the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program.

mujahid: A militant looms over a compound abandoned by Iraqi troops near Tikrit. Counterterrorism officials say the rarely seen Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be the most dangerous terrorist leader in the post-bin Laden world. (Associated Press)
mujahid: A militant looms over a compound abandoned by Iraqi troops near ... more >

The file outlines how his rise in Iraq was tied to the aftermath of bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in 2011. Directing a wave of suicide bomber attacks in the nation under the banner of a group then known as al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Baghdadi is said to have pledged to “carry out 100 attacks across Iraq in retaliation for bin Laden’s death.”

SEE ALSO: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard deploys to Iraq to stop Sunni terror group

U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials say his power and reputation have been growing since and that he soon masterminded the rise of al Qaeda-style extremism among rebels fighting President Bashar Assad in Syria, which shares a long border with Iraq to the northwest.

“Suicide bombers and car bombs during the first half of 2013 caused about 1,000 Iraqi deaths, the highest monthly violent death tolls since 2008,” states a declassified summary of al-Baghdadi’s rise posted on the website of the National Counterterrorism Center.

In April 2013, al-Baghdadi “declared the group was operating in Syria and changed its public name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” the counterterrorism center’s summary states, adding that al Baghdadi then became the subject of infighting involving al Qaeda-inspired groups among Syria’s embattled opposition.

“Since ISIL began operating in Syria, it has indiscriminately killed Syrian civilians and other members of the Syrian opposition in addition to targeting the Assad regime and its allies,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified. “This indiscriminate violence has created backlashes against the group.”

Too violent for al Qaeda?

Al-Baghdadi, who is believed to be in his early 40s, also has a reputation for trying to buck al Qaeda’s original leadership core.

In the post-bin Laden era, that has meant challenging Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s No. 2, who is believed to be still exerting influence from hideouts in Pakistan.

A fight between al-Zawahri and al-Baghdadi erupted in 2013 with al-Zawahri declaring the dissolution of ISIL in Syria and calling on al-Baghdadi to confine the group’s operations to Iraq.

Some leading terrorism analysts in the West saw the move as a recognition by al Qaeda leaders that al-Baghdadi’s extreme violence was alienating local populations, but other sources have privately suggested that the development may fit neatly into the terrorist movement’s deeper evolution.

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