Originally Published 2014-07-07 07:37:30 Published on Jul 07, 2014
Baghdadi, who has led the ISIS since 2010, has acquired significant financial and military power and influence among Sunni foreign fighters. But the ISIS's violent and extremist methods have alienated Sunni militias and Baghdadi's unwillingness to share power is likely to limit the group's territorial expansion.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and the rise of the ISIS
After declaring a Caliphate over occupied territories from Diyala in Iraq to Aleppo in Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gave his first televised speech at a mosque in Mosul on July 5, 2014. He stated that "the establishment of a Caliphate is an obligation" and called on all Muslims to "obey" him as long as he obeys God. Baghdadi, who was pronounced Caliph Ibrahim on June 29, called the title of Caliph a burden and one that he did not seek himself. The video of his speech was released amidst reports that Baghdadi has been injured or killed in an airstrike and the Iraqi government refuted the authenticity of the video.

Baghdadi, who has, since 2010, led the ISIS, now rebranded as the Islamic State (IS), has acquired significant financial and military power and influence among Sunni foreign fighters. Even though his claim to the Caliphate is disputed by many Muslims, he has led the IS in territorial advances across Iraq and Syria, including key border towns, oil fields and refineries. A preacher before the US invasion of Iraq, Baghdadi has emerged as a formidable opponent to the Iraqi administration and other insurgent groups, plunging the country into a political and sectarian crisis.

In the speech made at the onset of Ramadan, Baghdadi declared his intention of expanding the Caliphate and leading the conquest to Rome. He called on all Muslims to immigrate to the Islamic State and wage Jihad, stating that "there is no deed in this virtuous month (Ramadan) or in any other month better than Jihad in the path of Allah. Muslims' rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia...Sham (The Levant)...Iran ...and in the West". He called on scholars, experts on Islamic jurisprudence, judges, medical doctors and those with military expertise to consider immigration to the Islamic State as their individual obligation to answer to the "dire need" of Muslims.

He added that "terrorism is to refer to Allah's law for judgement...to refuse humiliation, subjugation and subordination". The "camp of disbelief and hypocrisy" are being led by "America and Russia and being mobilised by the Jews".

Baghdadi's speech elucidates his transnational ideology, which was also evident in the split between the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Qaeda Central. With the onset of the war in Syria, Baghdadi set up Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) to oppose the government in Damascus and in 2013, proposed that the ISI and JN merge together to form the ISIS.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ruled in favour of maintaining ISI and JN as separate entities in Iraq and Syria, respectively. However, Baghdadi proceeded to capture territories in Syria and announced the creation of the ISIS on April 8, 2013, after occupying the Syrian city of al-Raqqa. In reference to defying Zawahiri, Baghdadi stated that he "chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in letter".

Baghdadi accused JN of "defection" and asserted that the ISIS would not accept the borders based on the "Sykes-Picot" agreement. This agreement, drawn up in 1916 by Mark Sykes of Britain and George Picot of France, divided the Ottoman Empire territories to give France control of northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Britain control of southern Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. The agreement, therefore, divided the Levant along sectarian lines, with both regions (British and French) comprising of a variety of ethnic groups and religions.

Prior to his televised speech, Baghdadi had made significant efforts to protect his identity, having only two pictures in circulation and being commonly addressed by his noms de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Dua. This is believed to be because the previous leaders of ISI were killed after their movements were detected.

The text of the ISIS announcement disclosed Baghdadi's name as "Ibrâhîm Ibn 'Awwâd Ibn Ibrâhîm Ibn 'Alî Ibn Muhammad al-Badrî al-Hâshimî al-Husaynî al-Qurashî by lineage, as-Sâmurrâ'î by birth and upbringing, al-Baghdâdî by residence and scholarship".

Baghdadi was born in 1971 in the Iraqi town of Samarra into a family of Islamic scholars and preachers. He obtained a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad and became a preacher of the Sharia.

The ISIS document suggests that Baghdadi is a descendent of the Prophet's grandson, Hussein. In his televised speech also, Baghdadi referred to his lineage as being from the Prophet's Quraishi tribe, in compliance with the requirements of a Caliph.

Baghdadi turned to Jihad following the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003. He participated in the armed rebellion with Sunni militant groups based in Western Iraq, possibly in Anbar province -- a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi. Baghdadi is believed to have founded an armed group, Jaish Ahli Sunnah wa al-Jamaal, which was active in Baghdad, Diyala and Samarra and later pledged allegiance to the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). The MSC was a coalition of six Iraqi insurgent groups (including the AQI) that coalesced to liberate Iraq from the US occupation, and merged to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) on October 15, 2006, under the leadership of Abu Umar al-Baghdadi.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was arrested by US forces in 2006 and held at the Camp Bucca prison until 2009. News reports suggest that Baghdadi was radicalised in prison where he met and trained with al-Qaeda fighters. Following his release from prison, Baghdadi joined the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). He was declared the Emir of the ISI in 2010, after his predecessors, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were killed in strikes by the US forces.

Prior to Baghdadi's takeover of the ISI, the group had broken down and was ousted from its strongholds in and around Baghdad as well as northwards in the Anbar province, following the US military offensives and the 'Surge and the Awakening' - US's cultivation of Sunni militia groups to fight ISI in 2006 and 2007. Under Baghdadi's leadership, the ISI regrouped and re-established itself in the cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Diyala.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar, writes that the "Iraqi orientation" of the ISI, separate from the global al-Qaeda, was pioneered by Baghdadi. Baghdadi steered the group towards local Iraqi issues. He mandated the ISI to rebel against Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, and against the "Awakening" Sunni militias supported by the US. While the al-Qaeda focused on expelling foreign fighters from the region, the ISI instigated sectarian polarisation as a means of consolidating power in Iraq.

Baghdadi's anti-Shia ideology has translated into the slaughter of hundreds of Shia members of Iraq's security forces and attacks on Shia religious sites and shrines. The group has often referred to Shiites as heretics and polytheists, and threatened to attack the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. In 2012, Baghdadi announced the "Breaking the Walls" campaign which not only included eight prison breaks -- including Abu Ghraib wherein over 500 prisoners were released - but also 24 synchronised attacks targeted at Shia communities in Iraq.

Under the leadership of Baghdadi, the ISIS is seeking to establish political control over significant parts of Iraq and Syria. However, opening up too many battlefronts has weakened the group, and it has lost territorial control to Sunni groups like Jaysh al-Mujahideen in Syria. It is also battling Kurdish forces in key Iraqi cities like Tikrit and Shiite militias in Baquba. Despite the ISIS's territorial advances and purported influence, the group has been unable to acquire the allegiance of key al-Qaeda affiliates, in Iraq and beyond. The ISIS's violent and extremist methods have alienated Sunni militias and Baghdadi's unwillingness to share power is likely to limit the group's territorial expansion.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Chandrika Bahadur

Chandrika Bahadur

Chandrika Bahadur CEO The Antara Foundation

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