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.
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.
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.”
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.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times in February that the “life arc” of al Qaeda as a movement is likely to last 50 to 60 years and that the movement is probably only about halfway through its evolution.
It follows that the group will go in unpredictable directions during the years to come — and permit the rise of a regional player such as al-Baghdadi to global stature, thereby overshadowing al Qaeda’s veteran leadership.
But other sources, speaking anonymously with The Times, have said there is also debate in counterterrorism circles over the extent to which al-Baghdadi simply has a penchant for biting off more than he can chew as an extremist leader.
Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, ISIL’s strategy has involved fleecing the local population, running “protection rackets” and extorting money from wealthy businesspeople in northern Iraq.
While the mafia-style tactics may bring in piles of local cash that could make ISIL less beholden to al Qaeda’s original core, it also comes at a price.
By seizing control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul this week, ISIL is running the risk of undercutting its own fundraising source. “Mosul is where they get most of their money,” one source told The Washington Times, adding that if ISIL fighters attempt to hold the city, the local economy will inevitably crash.
There is also debate over the extent to which al-Baghdadi and ISIL pose a threat beyond Iraq and Syria — and particularly to the United States.
The group’s stated goal, which draws from an original mission outlined by al Qaeda in Iraq, is to establish an Islamist Sunni caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
The National Counterterrorism Center summary of al-Baghdadi’s rise noted that AQI initially “expanded its targeting outside of Iraq in August 2005 by attempting a rocket attack on a U.S. Navy ship in the port of Aqaba, Jordan, and in November 2005 with the bombing of three hotels in Amman that left 67 dead and more than 150 injured.”
There is no mention of the targeting of U.S. interests over the next seven years. But in 2012, the group “made vague threats against Americans everywhere,” according to the summary, which adds that the “arrests in May 2011 of two AQI-affiliated Iraqi refugees in Kentucky highlight the potential threat inside the United States from people associated with AQI.”
One U.S. counterterrorism official said ISIL is believed to have roughly 2,500 fighters inside Iraq.
Dozens of those fighters were reported to be struggling against anti-ISIL militants to gain control of the city of Samarra, roughly 70 miles north of Baghdad. Samarra is the city where al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Muslim, was born and raised.
The city is better known, however, as the home of al-Askari Mosque, a sacred shrine for the region’s Shiite Muslims that was bombed in 2006, triggering a bloody sectarian war that subsequently ripped through Iraq.