Who is Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the Caliph of the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was born on July 28th 1971. By a strange twist of fate the man who in 2014 would proclaim himself the “Caliph” was born in the small town of Samarra, north of Baghdad; with a population of just over 70,000 inhabitants the town is still strongly tied to its pastin which it played a major role in the ancient caliphates. To this day Samarra is home to the Malwiyya, the spiral Minaret within the walls of one of the most impressive mosques of Islamic culture, built in the ninth century. Furthermore, the tomb of two of the twelve Imams worshiped by Twelver Shiites can be found under the great golden dome damaged by an attack in February 2006.

Born Ibrahim Al Badri, today he is known through his war name Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and has become sadly famous throughout the world for his speech proclaiming the founding of the Islamic State in July 2014 in Mosul.

The future self-proclaimed Caliph of Isis grew up in Samarra leaving at the age of 18 and moving to Baghdad.  In the Iraqi capital he began studying Islamic Law at the University of Al Adhamiya. Saddam Hussein had already been in power for over a decade at the time of his stay in the Country’s major city, and not long before his graduation Baghdad was hit by a plethora of bombs and missiles during the First Gulf War.

The Iraqi university archives reveal little information about al- Baghdadi. We know he was a diligent student, however little else can be found and this is significant given that university activities were greatly monitored in Iraq under Saddam. An important detail can be sourced from his private life:  it seems Al Baghdadi was a frequent visitor at Tobchi Mosque, in the poor neighborhood of the Iraqi capital. This is also where he married his first wife,Saja, and shared an undisclosed passion: football.

When and how Al Baghdadi’s radicalization took place is something which still remains unanswered. Not even the two journalists,authors of his most accredited biographies, American Will McCants and Iranian Ali Ashem, seem to be able to give details on the subject.  According to some he would proclaim ultra-orthodox ideologies already when he was at university, to the point that he stopped a wedding from taking place near his home because men and women were dancing in the same room. Yet there is no information of him being affiliated to any of the jihadist groups at the time.

American intelligence files however do recount that between 1996 and 2000 Al Baghdadi lived in Afghanistan where they suspect he learnt basicguerrilla warfare techniques, though it has never been confirmed. What is certain is that his face first appeared in police files as from February 2004.

Twelve months earlier the US had invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. He was found and arrested in Falluja. Al Baghdadi was still known by his real name then and above all did  not appear in the list of most wanted men; infact the future caliph was arrested for being in the company of a Sunni guerrilla leader.

He was imprisoned in Camp Bucca, a military base near Bassorawhich the Americans turned into a prison. Acting as mediator between prison inmates and between prisoners and American soldiers, Al Baghdadi was recognized as being a gifted orator and having a certain charisma which won him respect in the Islamic world. But above all it is here thatthe future caliph began his “career” within the realm of Islamic integralism.

In December 2004 Al Baghdadi was released from Buccaand, significantly, returned to society as an ordinary citizen, not a terrorist: in facthis name figures among those of civilian detainees. Americans were once again to hear his voice in 2008, in a video in which Al Baghdadi appeared wearing a balaklava and holding a machine gun as he coordinated an assault operation in the surroundings of Mosul. Those video images are a testimony to Al Baghdadi’s ascent within Iraq’s Islamic terrorism which began with his release from Camp Bucca.

According to Iranian journalist Ali Ashem, from 2005 on Al Baghdadi lived in Al Qa’im,a frontier village between Iraq and Syria: it there that on behalf of Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) he managed the territory coordinating the recruitment of foreign fighters. Isil had been founded in 2006. At its head was Abu Omar Al Baghdadi, killed in April 2010 in Tikrit; his successor was to be Ibrahim Al Badri himself, who fromthen on called himself Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

His oratorical abilities, as well as his capacity to control the group and his thrifty management of the organization’s finances won him a soaring career within the ranks of Iraqi Islamism, finally conquering the summit.

Between 2011 and 2012, Isil’s leader started to operate with his group in Syria, a Country torn by war and revolts. Assad’s government was losing territory to the so-called rebel forces who however harbored a strong Islamic presence. Al Baghdadi changed his group’s name from Isil to Isis (Islamic state of Iraq and Syria), announcing a merge with the militants of the Al Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. This move was not seenfavorablyby the Al Nusra commanders, giving rise to a friction between them which would soon lead to clashes between the two factions.

Isis superseded Al Nusra in gaining territory and control, with the aim of creating an actual State, the prelude to the declaration of the caliphate.

And so we come to the infamous video shot at the great Mosque in Mosul, where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed the birth of the Caliphate and Islamic State. It was June 29th 2014. Isis was at the apex of its territorial expansion both in Syria and Iraq, putting the self-proclaimed Caliphate in control of a vast area, stretching from north of Baghdad to the doors of Aleppo.

In his speech Al Baghdadi incited all Muslims to attack the infidels present not only within Islamic State, but all over the world. The proclamation was followed up by numerous terrorist attacks both in the Middle East and Europe.

The Caliph’s current location and what he might be doing now are a mystery. His Caliphate has been reduced to small portions of the Syrian desert, with the forces of Damascus and Baghdad being able to regain the territories lost in 2014.

Nonetheless Isis has not been defeated once and for all: it is yet to be ascertained whether Al Baghdadi is still alive and above all if he is still at the helm of the network of terror. During the Islamic State’s maximum expansion it seems certain that Al Baghdadi’s living quarters were in Raqqa, the Syrian city which he had designated as capital of the Caliphate.

With the organization facing difficulties there have been numerous contrasting rumors regarding his fate. Between 2015 and 2016, twice the Iraqi government declared they had found and killed him, however neither of those instances were confirmed. In June 2017 it was the Russians who declared they had killed Al Baghdadi in a raid on Raqqa. Yet, an audio message of September 2017 from the Caliph himself was declared authentic, proving previous news had been unfounded.

More recently a number of Arab newspapers have made reference to a mysterious raid carried out by the US in the Syrian province of Hasakah, which culminated with the capture of Al Baghdadi: again the news was not confirmed while, from Iraq’s capital, sources from security forces have revealed they are on the tracks of the Isis leader whom they suspect is located somewhere along the frontier between Syria and Iraq.