The face that launched a thousand hits - Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


The face that launched a thousand hits


Baghdad, 5 July 2014

He was either dead or seriously wounded, or so they told us. It had all just happened during an attack by Iraqi security forces on a town called al-Qaim on the Syrian border. For me, working behind the concrete blast walls and barbed wire of the Baghdad office, it all sounded too incredible to be true even in those astonishing days of June and July 2014. But the Iraqi interior ministry was adamant when we called it - the world’s most dangerous man was possibly out of action, and for good.

Within a few weeks, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seemed to transcend his shadowy role as one of the world’s most wanted terrorists to become a force of nature. Like an avenging fire, he and his thirty thousand jihadis had roared east across the border from Syria into Iraq. They had seized territory that then stretched around 415 miles from eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo in Syria to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border. In a breathtaking move that stunned the world, Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, had fallen to Baghdadi. Thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians had been massacred and thrown into shallow graves. Baghdadi now marched on Baghdad itself.

Only six days earlier, on 29 June, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, Baghdadi’s bloodthirsty media spokesman, had issued an alarming proclamation. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was no longer. ISIS would now be known simply as Islamic State, an entity no longer constrained by the borders of Syria and Iraq. An Islamic empire known as a caliphate was declared and Baghdadi would be the caliph, or khalifah. He was not just some sort of Islamic pope-emperor but the true descendant of Muhammad, second only to the Prophet himself.

Baghdadi’s full nom de guerre was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurayshi; his real name was also known. He was really Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, but with a critical addition. As with his alias, he was also ‘al-Qurayshi’, meaning ‘from the Qurayshis’. This meant al-Baghdadi was claiming lineage from the tribe of Muhammad’s own family, known as the Qurayshis, considered by many Islamic scholars and clearly by Islamic State as an essential requirement to be caliph.

This was made by clear by the IS media guru Adnani, who declared:

The khalifah Ibrahim (may Allah preserve him) has fulfilled all the conditions for khilafah [caliph] mentioned by the scholars…His authority has expanded over wide areas in Iraq and Sham [Syria and Lebanon]. The land now submits to his order and authority from Aleppo to Diyala. So fear Allah, O slaves of Allah! Listen to your khalifah and obey him! Support your state, which grows every day - by Allah’s grace - with honour and loftiness, while its enemy increases in retreat and defeat.1

For Muslims there are few more loaded words than khalifah. The historic caliphate is regarded as by far the greatest and most important sovereign institution in the history of Islam and the word appears several times in the plural forms, khulafa and khala’if, and is translated as ‘successors’ or ‘heirs’.2 Following the death of Muhammad in 632 ad, the first acknowledged caliph was Abu Bakr, called Khalifatu Rasul Allah, the ‘Deputy of the Prophet of God’.3In Islam, to any mortal man - and there could be no other kind of man - there could be no greater honour than to be Muhammad’s heir.

As we hit the phones to try to confirm what had happened to Baghdadi, the man himself suddenly and dramatically appeared on our television screens. He was attired in the black cloak and turban of the Prophet as he limped his way up the steps to the minbar, Muslims’ version of a pulpit, at the great mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. At the top, he greeted his audience of mainly young men in jeans and T-shirts and then sat down and flossed his teeth while waiting for the muezzin to finish the call to prayer.

This was the first time Baghdadi had shown himself to the world on his own terms. Until then all anyone had was the image of a resentful glowering face peering from a prison mug shot. The Iraqi interior ministry, which can often be relied upon for the odd comic touch during many a dark moment, issued a statement, asserting that this baffling figure was ‘indisputably’ not Baghdadi. Brigadier General Saad Maan, the ministry’s well-meaning spokesman, stated confidently, ‘We have analysed the footage…and found it is a farce.’4 No farce this, but a recording of Baghdadi from the previous day.

The confusion was perhaps understandable. Despite the terror inflicted by Baghdadi during the last four years, few people knew who he was or what he looked like. It was said he even wore a mask, earning him the nickname ‘the Invisible Sheikh’.5

Until then, the world had only two mug shots of Baghdadi, taken during his ten months of captivity in a US prison camp,6 but the face beneath the straggly, greying beard, with its thick black Groucho Marx-style eyebrows and cold brown eyes, was unmistakable. It was ‘indisputably’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, so far one of the biggest killers of the twenty-first century. Yes, this really was the face that launched a thousand hits and more than 6,800 bombings during the course of 2013 alone, according to the grisly annual report called Al-Naba (‘The Report’) he had published a few months earlier.7 In fact, to be exact, Baghdadi boasted, 6,876 bombings and 1,083 targeted assassinations for the year. This was a man who had not only killed thousands of people; he liked to catalogue his murders and massacres meticulously, for posterity.

From his minbar he called on the Ummah, the term for Muslims around the world, to pay him their allegiance, or bay’ah: ‘I am the wali [leader] who presides over you,’ he said, ‘though I am not the best of you, so if you see that I am right, assist me. If you see that I am wrong, advise me and put me on the right track, and obey me as long as I obey God in you.’ As he spoke, Baghdadi’s eyes scanned his audience slowly and warily from left to right and back again like searchlights on a prison watchtower.

Since the fifteenth century the sultans of the Ottoman Empire had claimed the title of caliph. In November 1922, a new Turkish assembly dismissed the last sultan and abolished the sultanate, but by a constitutional quirk the title of caliph went to the crown prince, Abdülmecid Efendi, an accomplished artist and avid butterfly collector. Abdülmecid was the 101st Sunni Muslim to claim the caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 ad. On 3 March 1924, the Turkish assembly abolished the caliphate, and on the following day officials of the new Turkish republic escorted Abdülmecid to the railway station, in what has been described as a ‘humiliating manner’, and bundled him onto the Orient Express to Paris and permanent exile.8 He died in the French capital twenty years later just as the Nazis were expelled.9 The contrast between the last recognized caliph of the Islamic world and this apparition in Mosul could not have been greater.

Baghdadi had declared a caliphate stretching from the Pyrenees to Indonesia with himself as emperor and head pontiff, effectively world domination, yet the thing that attracted most ridicule from the Western media was his watch, which was either an Omega Seamaster, ‘as worn by James Bond’, or a Rolex worn by anyone with £8,000 or so to spare.10 His hatred for Western values clearly was not all-consuming, but despite this unusual PR glitch, Baghdadi did not cut a ludicrous figure - far from it. By then, the TV screens had shown terrifying images of the massacres committed in his name.

Until he launched his war on the world, the Iraq conflict had been a distant memory and the terrible ensuing carnage all too awful to contemplate; the crowds had gone home and so had the foreign troops. For many people in the West, Baghdadi appeared almost as a goblin from a half-forgotten horror story.

For Baghdadi and his predecessors, and for nearly twenty years, the caliphate had been the ultimate goal all along and the reason for all the extraordinary violence they employed against their many enemies. Every atrocity, torture, assassination and theft was simply a means to one overpowering obsession - to destroy nation states, seize territory and build a caliphate from the ashes.

Baghdadi had come a long way. In a little more than four years, he had taken a broken gang of jihadis from the brink of complete defeat to the dream they had long cherished: a caliphate at the heart of the Muslim world, governed by Islamic Sharia law and with access to the region’s vast oil supplies. Baghdadi had hijacked sectarian uprisings either side of the Syria-Iraq border to create his caliphate, and the United States, the UK and governments in the Middle East had been powerless to prevent it. ‘Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state!’ he exhorted Muslims. ‘Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.’11

In the words of IS, this land had been taken by the sword12 and by June 2014 its territories had assumed many of the characteristics of a state. At the time of writing, more than six million people live in the ‘Islamic State’ and are subject to Sharia law as interpreted by Baghdadi. I have communicated with people in the twin IS capitals of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq. They have provided eloquent testimony to the fear many normal decent people have of living under the harsh and unforgiving rule of IS.

Islamic State is said to be the richest terror organization in history thanks to its control of people and territory. It has robbed banks. In Mosul, the group was accused of stealing some $425 million from the central bank, although the bank’s deputy governor refused to confirm or deny the money had gone.13

The group’s seizure of oil wells and refineries, particularly in Syria, has helped make IS fabulously wealthy, possibly to the tune of $4.5 billion, although no one really knows the full extent of its wealth. Control of important border posts has allowed it to smuggle oil into Turkey and elsewhere and trade it on the black market. In the first two weeks of July 2014, IS was said to be earning $1 million a day from the sale of black market oil alone,14 although it could be three times that figure.15

Huge revenues have also been generated for the caliphate through hostage ransoms, the sale of antiquities, extortion and taxation of the people captive in their territories, fuelling its expansion and terror. Primarily, that terror has been exercised in the territory of the caliphate itself. I have spoken to people in Raqqa who have witnessed many beheadings. Gay men have been thrown to their deaths from tower blocks in the northern Iraqi territory of Nineveh and in Raqqa; women stoned to death for adultery; Christians crucified; and young Kurdish boys tortured and killed. Men have been beheaded for ‘sorcery’; a young Jordanian pilot has been burned alive in a cage.16 The Yazidi people, who suffered from the IS onslaught on Sinjar in north-western Iraq in late summer 2014, saw their wives and children, in the words of Islamic State’s own glossy magazine, Dabiq, ‘divided according to the Shari’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations’.17 Baghdadi’s media guru, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, warned everyone else, probably most people reading this book, that they would be next: ‘We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. This is His promise to us; He is glorified and He does not fail in His promise. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.’18

Many of us who reported from Baghdad during those dangerous hot fetid weeks of June and July 2014 found it uncomfortable, to say the least, knowing that the forces of Baghdadi and his mouthpiece Adnani were trying to fight their way into the capital. To the west, Islamic State fighters were supposed to be contesting the towns of Ramadi and Abu Ghraib. They were also around a hundred miles to the north fighting around Tikrit. In this strange sprawling conflict, IS were trying to seize Kirkuk in the northern Kurdistan region and Baqubah, north-west of Baghdad, in an attempt to encircle the Iraqi capital. It had become a nasty multi-front war. Before I had set out for Baghdad, several BBC colleagues bet me I would have to be whisked to safety by helicopters to escape advancing IS fighters just like they had seen in the old footage of the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong in 1975. There was an evacuation plan but thankfully it would not be needed. The march of IS had been stalled on the western and northern approaches to the capital.

In July 2014, with the enemy at the gate, Baghdad was a front-line city, but then it had been since the jihadis began their assault on the capital eleven years previously. As we sizzled in temperatures of more than 50°C, the relentless grind of bombings and shootings continued, thanks to Baghdadi’s killers. We had all been told about the coming ‘Zero Hour’. More than 200 IS terror sleeper cells would rise up inside Baghdad and support the fighters pushing in from the west of the capital. More than 1,500 IS fighters would intensify their bomb attacks on key targets and try to penetrate the ‘Green Zone’, the heavily fortified city within a city housing key government ministries and the vast US embassy.19 But Zero Hour did not come then or on subsequent visits. It may never come. For Baghdadi, the Iraqi capital would remain the objective, the future hub of his caliphate. After all, his nom de guerre means ‘from Baghdad’.

This caliphate had been helped into being by a toxic combination of factors. These included the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the bungled occupation of the country, along with the Syrian Civil War; rampant corruption, particularly in the army; the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, both in Iraq and Syria; and the failure of Iraq’s predominantly Shia-led governments to behave fairly and sensibly towards the country’s desperate Sunni minority. All these terrible failures played their part in the rise of IS. But to give credit where it is due, it was also down to the ability of Baghdadi and his forebears to exploit all these factors to their own advantage, along with their ruthless ambition to establish the caliphate come what may.

Zarqawi and the big bad idea

Islamic State began life back in 1999 as a training camp for jihadis in Afghanistan called Tawhid wa’l Jihad. Its name means ‘Monotheism and Jihad’,20 monotheism being the fundamental belief in Allah as the one God and jihad the means to establish his law, Sharia, on earth. In charge of the camp near the city of Herat was a Jordanian man called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would help bring chaos and death to Iraq and become one of the world’s most feared terrorists.

Zarqawi established the virulently intolerant ideology that is the foundation of Islamic State today. Zarqawi’s driving obsession was also the establishment of a caliphate and his methods were virtually the same as Baghdadi’s, give or take the odd burning alive of a captured pilot, although his bombs would burn many thousands of men, women and children in his three-year-long frenzy of terror. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rightly considers Zarqawi the true founding father of Islamic State. Richard Barrett, a former senior British intelligence officer and now a security analyst with the US think-tank the Soufan Group, said, ‘It’s interesting looking at Islamic State because al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State propaganda really hold up Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as being the guy, the founder, and even more important than Osama bin Laden himself.’21

Like Baghdadi, Zarqawi was obsessed with the media and how to project himself and his message to a disbelieving world. Then there is the astonishing violence that both men used against their fellow Muslims, mainly the Shia, their most hated enemy, as well as their supposedly fellow Sunnis, whom they claimed to represent. Zarqawi also kidnapped Western hostages and filmed them as he personally cut their heads off with a knife; Baghdadi was content to let others carry out such tasks, albeit under his direction.

It was Zarqawi who would first reveal to an outside world the timetable by which the jihadists hoped to dominate the globe. He would lead a short brutal life and brutally cut short the lives of countless innocent people. His legacy has been the deaths of thousands more. I spoke to Dr Alaa Makki, an important Iraqi Sunni parliamentarian, about Zarqawi, and asked him to compare Zarqawi, the first so-called emir, with Baghdadi. ‘Let me put it this way in the terms of a computer system,’ said Makki: ‘if al-Baghdadi is Windows 10, then Zarqawi was more like Windows 1 or 2. Musab al-Zarqawi was the leader of small armed groups, a local militia leader, who killed mainly Shia Muslims and also many Sunnis. But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has many fighters and made his caliphate and announced himself to be caliph, and demands loyalty from all Muslims. That was a very dangerous announcement. That is the very obvious difference.’22

Unlike Baghdadi, about whom so little is known, Zarqawi is no mystery. By all accounts, he was a street thug and a bully before falling under the influence of religious Islamist extremists. Zarqawi was born on 20 October 1966 in a house overlooking a cemetery in the Jordanian town of Zarqa,23 hence his later nom de guerre al-Zarqawi, ‘from Zarqa’. His real name was Ahmad Fadil al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, and his family were originally Bedouin Arabs of the al-Khalayleh clan, a branch of the Banu Hassan tribe. After dropping out of school at the age of seventeen, he worked in a series of dead-end jobs, including in a paper factory.24 He was drinking heavily and getting into fights. He would be accused of drug dealing, and even pimping. He was known as the ‘Green Man’ because of his many tattoos, which he would later try to erase with hydrochloric acid.25 Zarqawi was squat and well built and struggled with his weight. Photos and film of the Jordanian down the years show a big, puffy, sometimes gelatinous-seeming face, often curtailed by a beard and moustache.

Zarqawi started to become radicalized in prison after being convicted of drug possession and sexual assault.26 It is not hard to understand why Zarqawi would become infected with Islamist extremism in prison. He was a troubled man living in a troubled country. In September 1970, King Hussein of Jordan went to war with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that led to the expulsion of thousands of refugees and PLO fighters. In the following decades, political Islam in the shape of the transnational organization the Muslim Brotherhood became increasingly prominent in Jordan, taking over universities and other important institutions. According to Zarqawi’s biographer Jean-Charles Brisard, one offshoot of the Brotherhood infiltrated Palestinian enclaves in Jordan while another, the Islamic Action Front, became a real power in the land. ‘Thus the Jordanian political context in the 1990s was like a nutritious broth in which Islamist organizations and radical currents proliferated.’27

Towards the end of the 1980s Zarqawi attended mosques for religious instruction, principally the al-Husayn Ben Ali mosque in the Jordanian capital, Amman. He then took the fateful decision to travel to Afghanistan, where he came in contact with the Mujahidin, and al-Qaeda and its charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi was a Johnny-come-lately as far as the real fighting against the Soviets was concerned. The Soviet Union, considered to be made up of infidels and crusaders by the Mujahidin, had decided to end its disastrous intervention in Afghanistan and was pulling out. At the start of the 1990s in Afghanistan Zarqawi is believed to have met bin Laden for the first time, and so began the often fraught, up-and-down relationship between al-Qaeda and the Zarqawi network which later became Islamic State. But it was his meeting in the Pakistan city of Peshawar with an obscure Islamist scholar that would have significant ramifications.

Born in 1959, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi became one of the most influential Islamist scholars in the Middle East. (His real name is Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi.) To many jihadis, Maqdisi has been an extremely important spiritual leader and ideologue. Eighteen publications by Maqdisi were found among the effects of Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.28 He made his name in the early 1980s when he published The Creed of Abraham, revered as a textbook by Islamist extremists around the world. More than any other scholar, Maqdisi is responsible for the ruthless and intolerant ideology followed by IS, although even he had become a fierce critic of the group by 2014.29 Maqdisi also helped make Zarqawi the monster he became, Jean-Charles Brisard describing him as ‘a thousand times more dangerous than Zarqawi’.30

Maqdisi introduced an impressionable twenty-three-year-old Zarqawi to an extremely puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism. Salafis believe in the cleansing from Islam of what they see as the contamination and corruption caused by the colonization of the Middle East by European powers such as Britain and France. Salafis like bin Laden also added the ‘far enemy’ of the US and the effects of American influence to the list of contaminants. Men should revert more than 1,300 years to the time of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam was purest and God, or Allah, was the source of all power.

Modern Salafis see Western civilization as extremely dangerous to Islam, a destructive threat most powerfully articulated by a second fundamentalist Islamist scholar and one of the most important of his age, Sayyid Qutb. In his hugely influential book of 1964, Milestones, Qutb, an Egyptian, argued for jihad, a holy war not just in defence of Islam but ultimately as the way of establishing Sharia law throughout the world, or in his own words ‘as a means of establishing the Divine authority…to be carried throughout the earth to the whole of mankind, as the object of this religion is all humanity, and its sphere of action is the whole earth’.31 So, Qutb’s project clearly included all non-Muslims as well as Muslims. He mentioned the elevation of man to the position of khalifah, caliph, as Allah’s regent on earth, as ‘an essential requirement for attaining the leadership of mankind’ and ‘an essential condition of our very existence and Islam itself’.32

Qutb argued that ‘Western man’ was no longer capable of leading humanity because he was ‘unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind’.33 Only Islam and Sharia law could do that but first the Muslim community ‘must be restored to its original form’. The community must return to the seventh century and the days of the Prophet Muhammad and the first generation of Muslims, whose only guidance was the Holy Koran. In those days there was a true Islamic system governed by Sharia. ‘No other generation of this calibre was ever again to be found,’ wrote Qutb,34 who was eventually hanged after being convicted for his alleged part in an assassination attempt on Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser.35

Salafism is derived from the Arabic expression al-salaf al-salih, which refers to the ‘pious forebears’36 of the seventh century, in other words the generation of Muhammad and the two that followed him. Like Qutb, the modern Salafis believe the first Muslims and the immediate successors of Muhammad exemplify most perfectly what it means to be a virtuous Muslim and later generations must emulate them. Islam must be purged of any impurities and shorn of any ambiguity or sentimentality about other religions. If it was a highly evolved luxury car, it would revert to the first model and then stripped down so all working parts could be on display.

Concepts such as democracy are alien to Salafis. The answer must be an Islamic state where the only law is God’s law, or Sharia. This had long been espoused by the Wahhabis, the extreme Islamist sect that is often described as synonymous with Salafism. Bankrolled by the Saudi royal family, to whom they give legitimacy, the Wahhabis had spread their fundamentalist and intolerant message far and wide across the Middle East with enormous consequences for the region and the world.

‘Democracy is a religion. But it is not Allah’s religion,’ wrote Maqdisi. Even implementing legislation was heresy. Legislators, including members of parliament, were apostates, guilty of kufr.37

Kufr, or unbelief, is the ultimate sin of apostasy, committed by people turning away from pure Islam as interpreted by the Salafis. Apostates were beyond the pale and should be stripped of social rights and excluded from the economy.38 For Baghdadi and Zarqawi before him, kufr was applied to everyone, non-Muslims as well as Muslims, who did not agree with this extremely narrow interpretation of Islam, and it became a death sentence resulting in the genocidal slaughter of many thousands of Shia Muslims, Yazidis and Christians. Apostates, or kuffar, deserved to die. ‘Islam never was for a day the religion of peace,’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in 2015. ‘Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war till Allah is worshipped alone.’39

Maqdisi and Zarqawi became unlikely friends, the star ideologue and intellectual and the one-time hoodlum and drunk. Together they proved to be a lethal concoction of ideology and extreme brutality. According to another Zarqawi biographer, Loretta Napoleoni, the ideology mixed with the anger running through Zarqawi’s veins horribly simplified the world for him: ‘Takfir [the act of declaring someone an unbeliever] was his response to the consumerism and rapid modernization that had destroyed the Bedouin way of life. Takfir was how he attacked those who had forced upon him a life of misery, of socioeconomic marginalization, of endless humiliation.’

Salafism had long proved to be a dangerous ideology, but Zarqawi would take it to its logical conclusion. To this violent and unstable man, that meant the physical destruction of the guilty apostates, the kuffar, according to his limited and twisted perception of his own religion and the world around him. Takfirism would be a justification for genocide against other Muslims, particularly the Shia, as well as against ‘errant’ Sunnis. It also demanded the extermination of non-Muslims, particularly the Christian and Yazidi minorities of Iraq, a ‘policy’ that was still being driven relentlessly by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during his lightning conquests of large swathes of Iraq in 2014. Takfirism gave Zarqawi all the excuse he needed to indulge his monstrous inner demons and let them loose on the world.