Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

8

Savagery under new management

– the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

1971–2010

The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, finally put an end to the increasingly tiresome speculation over the existence of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi by producing a photograph of his bloodied corpse at a press conference on 18 April 2010. For good measure Maliki produced a similar photograph of Islamic State of Iraq’s ‘military commander’, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

As with Zarqawi back in 2006, the pair had been betrayed from within. On 11 March 2010, acting on a tip from the US, Iraqi troops at a checkpoint arrested Manaf al-Rahim al-Rawi, the ISI ‘emir’ for Baghdad. Rawi was wanted for the assassination of an Iraqi MP as well as the coordinated bombings of the ministries of foreign affairs and finance and several Baghdad hotels during August 2009. The attacks killed more than a hundred people and injured another 565.1 Rawi was one of the few to enjoy direct access to Abu Omar. The arrest was not announced so as to avoid alerting ISI to the capture of a potentially dangerous informant, and Rawi evidently cooperated in his interrogation.2 He would later hang for his crimes.

Acting on Rawi’s information, Iraqi intelligence managed to get a listening device and GPS location tracker delivered to Abu Omar’s safe house in a flower box.3

The gadgets proved that Abu Omar and Masri were together in the safe house, which was located in the Tharthar area of Iraq around six miles south-west of Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit and seventy or so miles north of Baghdad. On 18 April 2010, Iraqi and US commandos surrounded the house and then advanced on it from all sides. A huge blast suddenly reverberated throughout the whole house. Trapped and realizing that all was lost, both Abu Omar and Masri detonated their suicide belts without even saying goodbye to their families.4 Their wrecked corpses were photographed and their widows and children were captured and jailed. Both widows were convicted of participation in their husband’s crimes. As detailed in Chapter 6, Jassem, Abu Omar’s wife, was jailed for life5 while Masri’s, Hussein, was hanged.6

The death of the two ISI leaders was a significant coup in its own right but it also meant that most of the organization’s remaining leadership could now be rolled up. Over the following days, based on intelligence from Rawi and computer files and documents seized from the safe house, other key ISI members were killed or captured. Ahmad al-Ubaydi, a senior ISI commander for three northern Iraqi provinces, was killed on 20 April. Two other leaders were killed during a raid in Mosul and the ISI military leader for Anbar, Mahmoud Suleiman, was arrested.7

A confidential US security assessment on 29 June 2010 said:

Over the last 90 days, Iraqi and US forces have eliminated more than 80 percent of the Islamic State of Iraq’s (ISI’s) top leadership…these personnel losses are compounded by the fact that that the al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist group has been struggling financially and is reportedly having problems getting foreign fighters into the country.

These setbacks will invariably complicate the ISI’s efforts to continue its campaign. While it is unlikely that the ISI’s propensity for violent attacks will wane, the group’s diminished leadership, operational capacity and logistics infrastructure make the militant organization’s future seem bleak.8

The US had become increasingly contemptuous of the threat posed by the ISI leadership, as the state department demonstrated by reducing the initial $5 million bounty offered for Masri first to $1 million and then to a mere $100,000.9 Back in June 2008, the US military said dismissively of Masri, ‘The current assessment, based on a number of factors, shows that he is not as an effective leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq as he was last year.’10

David Kilcullen, the former US state department chief strategist on counter-insurgency, believes that the US and Iraqi military became dangerously complacent about their apparent victory over ISI. He said:

By 2010, we had gotten Islamic State of Iraq down to about five percent of their strength and only two or three percent of their activity, and we had a workable truce going with the Sunni and we had a pretty decent set of technically capable people in the police and the military and we were starting with a more effective administration but it was nowhere close to done.

Like his former colleague Peter Mansoor, Kilcullen has a mixed metaphor for what this meant: ‘I liken it to that we took the first few days of our antibiotics and then we stopped taking them. You know what happens if you do that, you get the drug-resistant bacteria that come bouncing back. That’s kind of what ISIS is; it’s the drug resistant strain of al-Qaeda in Iraq [Islamic State of Iraq] that survived the Surge and was then allowed to reboot.’11

It is hard to think of a better description for the resilience of the ferocious almost demonic figure who would take the helm of the shattered Islamic State of Iraq following the liquidation of most of its leadership. On 16 May 2010, ISI announced that its new leader would be Abu Bakr al-Qurayshi al-Husseini al-Baghdadi. The new ‘military leader’ was announced as Nasser al-Din Allah Abu Suleiman. US security experts were initially baffled by the announcement of the new leadership. ‘Any idea who any of these guys are?’ asked a baffled analyst with the private intelligence company Stratfor. ‘They are likely nom de guerres [sic] but are they associated with anyone we know?’12

Back at his hideout in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden was just as curious about the new appointments, over which he clearly had no influence. In a letter later recovered by US Navy SEALS from his house, bin Laden wrote:

It would be good for you to provide us with detailed information about our brother Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been appointed as a replacement for our brother Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, Allah have mercy on his soul.

It would be better for you to ask among several sources among our brothers there, whom you trust, about them so the matter becomes clear to us.13

Within a year, the Iraqis claimed to have killed Suleiman 14 in the town of Hit west of Baghdad. Certainly very little has been heard of him since, although in November 2014 he was rumoured to be still alive and occupying a senior position within Islamic State. Suleiman seems to have embraced obscurity if he still lives. Baghdadi, on the other hand, would not possess the undoubted charisma of Osama bin Laden but he would far surpass the al-Qaeda leader both in power and number of innocent victims. The new ISI ‘emir’ would take his group from the point of extinction to becoming one of the deadliest terrorist organizations of the early twenty-first century. Through mass murder and genocide, he would turn the old jihadi dream of a caliphate into reality. Others who had to fight ISI and recognized the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, such as Awakening leader Sheikh Jassim al-Dulaimi, knew immediately ‘the post of caliph’ had been given to ‘the most brutal individual and the most aggressive on the issuing of fatwas; he doesn’t refrain from doing anything’.15

The quiet man of Tobchi

Investigating an enigma like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is rather like grappling with fog. At the beginning of 2015, again it was not clear even if the ‘caliph’ of Islamic State was still alive or dead. In November 2014, Baghdadi was ‘confirmed’ injured in a US-led coalition air strike,16 but this was never confirmed and was almost certainly inaccurate. In April 2015, it was again reported that Baghdadi had been badly injured and possibly crippled for life in a separate air strike, possibly carried out on 18 March.17 This report by the Guardian newspaper felt substantially more credible, not least because news leaked out that Islamic State had appointed an ‘acting emir’, Abu Alaa al-Afri, to fulfil many of the ‘caliph’s’ duties.18 So alive or dead, Baghdadi is, or was, a mystery.

Professor Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East scholar based at the London School of Economics, told me, ‘There is a great deal that we don’t know about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; we need to tell people is that what we do not know is more important than what we know.’19 Baghdadi had been proclaimed ‘caliph’ of an Islamic empire that he hoped would control much of the earth’s surface and yet he had not submitted so much as a curriculum vitae for the inspection of his billions of potential subjects. For some time, it was said he even wore a mask while addressing his commanders, earning him the title ‘the Invisible Sheikh’.20 That is what helped make his sudden appearance in Mosul in July 2014 at the first Friday prayer service of Ramadan so dramatic. However, neither before nor since his speech has he made any effort to help people understand him or his motives. He seemed content to allow people to judge him by his conquests and many murders.

Gradually, pieces of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi jigsaw are falling into place. More information is emerging from a variety of sources, including one intriguing source, apparently close to the leadership of IS, or close enough to observe its machinations: the source known only as ‘Wikibaghdady’. US intelligence officials believe Wikibaghdady to be a senior Islamic State leader, possibly even a member of its governing shura council – such is the credibility of his information.21

Baghdadi’s nom de guerre already gave a few clues about the man. ‘Abu Bakr’ was the name of the first Sunni caliph to succeed the Prophet Muhammad back in 632. Abu is Arabic for ‘father’, so he presumably had children. In fact, he was known to have six by two wives. Probably most important, Baghdadi also claimed to be ‘al-Qurayshi’, claiming descent from the Prophet’s tribe, as did Abu Omar before him.22 Many Islamic scholars consider this an essential requirement to become caliph and it is clear that Baghdadi and ISI believed the qualification to be equally important at the time. Abu Bakr’s first military leader, Abu Suleiman, also claimed to be ‘al-Qurayshi’, presumably meaning that the organization would still have a caliph in waiting should one or the other of them be killed or captured. The nom de guerre ‘al-Baghdadi’ suggests that Abu Bakr was from Baghdad, but he was not.

Abu Bakr’s real name and its variations also tell us much about him. His first identity card, unearthed later by German journalists, revealed his real name to be Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, showing that he is from the Albu Badri tribe, which he later claimed to be descended from the Qurayshi and therefore the Prophet Muhammad.23 He would also later add ‘al-Samarrai’, showing he was also from the city of Samarra, home to the famous shrine attacked first by Zarqawi in 2006 and then for good measure by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi the following year. He would also be known as ‘Abu Dua’. The ID card, number 234250, showed he was born on 1 July 1971 in Samarra. He was the third of four sons.

What appears to be a short semi-authorized biography of Baghdadi, apparently written by a Bahraini ideologue called Abid Humam al-Athari,24 asserts that his father was a Sheikh Awad, a religious man, as was his grandfather, Haj Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, ‘a man known of his persistence on congregational prayer’.25 They were said to be farmers. Haj apparently lived to the age of almost ninety-five and long enough to witness the US-led occupation. The family’s creed is described as ‘Salafiya’, meaning Baghdadi comes from a line of Salafis, which would also make sense, given that his takfir-ism certainly mutated from his Salafi belief. Abu Bakr attended the Ahmad bin Hanbal mosque in Samarra,26 and may have even preached there.27 The brief Athari hagiography said of Baghdadi, ‘He is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and teachers in Arabic, eloquence and logic.’ Abu Bakr’s mother, who is not named, is described as one of the ‘notables’ of the al-Badr tribe, someone who ‘loves religion’ and ‘one of the supporters of promoting virtue and prohibiting vice’.28

Official education records from Samarra high school, attended by the future self-proclaimed ‘caliph’, have also recently revealed that Baghdadi had to retake his high-school certificate in 1991 and that he scored 481 out of 600 possible points. He scored additional points as a ‘brother of a martyr’ meaning that one of his brothers had fought and died for Saddam in either the Iraq–Iran War (1980–8) or the First Gulf War over Kuwait from late 1990 to early 1991.29 The man whose jihadist army would later conquer huge swathes of the Middle East in just a few months was, apparently, deemed unfit for military service in the Iraqi military because he was short-sighted.30 A photograph taken by the US military of Baghdadi in glasses emerged in 2015.

According to an investigation by Al Monitor, Baghdadi’s three brothers are called Shamsi, Jomaa and Ahmad. Of the three, Jomaa is said to have been the closest to Baghdadi and is rumoured to have acted as one of his bodyguards. Shamsi and Baghdad were said to have argued frequently about Baghdadi’s decision to join the jihad. Shamsi is now said to in an Iraqi intelligence facility.31 Little is known of the third brother Ahmad other than that he had money problems, something people could never say of his famous brother and his wealthy terror organization.

Baghdadi’s high-school grades were not apparently good enough to study any of his first three choices of law, languages and educational science at Baghdad University. There is a common misconception that Baghdadi earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Baghdad University, but it seems he attended another less prestigious institution in Baghdad called the Islamic University,32 now known as the Iraqi University, where he studied Islamic law (Sharia), and reportedly, later, the Koran.33 He would put his Islamic knowledge to deadly effect.

By almost common consent, Baghdadi is described as quiet and unassuming. In Baghdad I met up with someone who knew him when he was a student. Dr Hisham al-Hashimi is now a writer and security analyst, as well as one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic State. I asked Hashimi what Baghdadi was like as a young man. He said:

I met him in Baghdad at an Islamic studies course. There was a bunch of us, around thirty or forty students. He was someone from a village who had come to Baghdad. He struck me as nothing special; he was shy and quiet at the same time, and he was also poor. He was just very normal, nothing special.

He was religious because he was from a very religious family. His father was an imam in a mosque. He was religious but he wasn’t extremist at the time.34

At the time, Baghdadi lived in a room adjoining the Zagal mosque in the ramshackle district of Tobchi in northern Baghdad, where both Sunni and Shia live side by side. Hashimi said he and Baghdadi studied under an imam who, like Baghdadi, came from Samarra. The imam died in 2012 but it is possible that local connections in his hometown had secured Baghdadi’s berth at the Zagal mosque. This is where he was known to play regular football, for the mosque.35 Sometimes in Tobchi, people would hear Baghdadi calling them to prayer from the mosque when he was asked to act as the muezzin.36

In early adulthood, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a member of the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream transnational Islamist organization that also wants to bring about a caliphate. The future caliph disagreed with the Brotherhood’s strategy for how to bring about an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia. Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East scholar based in London, said, ‘On the whole, the Muslim Brotherhood basically renounced the use of force and violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that he [Baghdadi] became disgruntled. He didn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood, because the Muslim Brotherhood no longer believed in the use of violence in the service of politics.’37 Baghdadi’s membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was confirmed by its highly influential spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric residing in Qatar. In a TV interview in October 2014, Qaradawi, then aged eighty-eight, confirmed Baghdadi’s membership, referring to the future IS leader rather grandly as ‘this youngster’.38 Qaradawi said Baghdadi had referred to himself as ‘Ikhwan’, the name of a Wahhabi religious militia that first appeared in Saudi Arabia in the early twentieth century.

For many people, Baghdadi’s life was something of a mystery until he came to the US authorities’ attention in 2004 as a terrorist suspect. The almost universally accepted narrative has Baghdadi becoming radicalized in 2004 by jihadi inmates during his incarceration in the US prison in southern Iraq, Camp Bucca. If that were the case, it would mean that he would have gone from being an angry former prison camp inmate to the head of a dangerous jihadi terrorist organization in a little more than half a decade. This theory seems unlikely and would later strike some of Baghdadi’s former prison guards as absurd. It would also mean Baghdadi started his terror career at the relatively grand old age of 33, which is positively ancient in jihadi terms. Surely, he would have needed more of a track record in fighting for the jihad? There is also hardening evidence that, like so many others including Zarqawi and Bin Laden before him, Baghdadi may have started his career as a jihadist fighter in Afghanistan and may even have known Zarqawi there.

Recently, Afghan security officials have asserted confidently that Baghdadi lived with Zarqawi in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of the Afghan capital, Kabul, between 1996 and 2000.39 This would mean Baghdadi would have been in his mid-twenties before leaving for Afghanistan, a respectable age for a jihadi starting out, but still a little on the old side. The city was then under the rule of the Taliban, and Afghan security officials have also said that Baghdadi was involved with a group of fanatically anti-Shia takfiri extremists called the Ishaq Group, also known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or LeJ. Headed by Maulvi Ishaq, the group was active in Bagram, a small town in the north-east of Afghanistan. Founded in 1996, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi took its name from a Sunni terrorist called Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was killed by Shia militants in 1990. The aim of LeJ was to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violence.40

Zarqawi also appears to have had a long-standing relationship with LeJ leaders and members stretching back to his first stint in Afghanistan between 1989 and 1993.41 He is thought to have run a training camp in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border that was hosted by the group. It is also believed that Zarqawi helped train the Pakistani jihadis carry out attacks on Shia Muslims in Punjab.42

People have also claimed that they saw Baghdadi playing football in Afghanistan and remembered him often playing at the Amani high school, which indeed does have its own sports field. Baghdadi is known to have enjoyed playing football in Iraq and was said to have been a good player; a former associate who played with him in Baghdad once described him as ‘the Messi of our team’.43 The Amani high school was under the control of the Afghan ministry of education, then run by Hamdullah Nomani, the Taliban education minister. He was also said to have been a friend of Baghdadi.44

An unnamed Taliban commander confirmed to the Afghan reporter Zeerak Fahim that he had met Baghdadi and Zarqawi together after they had been the victims of a Taliban cash sting. The Taliban leader was reported as saying:

I met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and their friends who came to me in connection of a problem.

They gave $400 to a low-level Taliban official to buy weapons. But the Taliban neither purchased the arms nor returned their money. I told the late Zarqawi to forget about the money and [that] the Taliban official had extorted money from a number of people.45

What is puzzling about Baghdadi is that after the invasion he did not join up formally with Zarqawi and would not do so until early 2006. If they had been such good friends, as the Afghan sources claim, why did Baghdadi go it alone with his own group before joining forces with the Jordanian? According to his official-looking ‘biography’ by Abid Humam al-Athari, Baghdadi set up a smaller group of jihadis called the Jaish Ahlu al-Sunnah Wa al-Jama’ah, or Army of the Sunni People.46 This operated in Baghdad and in and around Samarra and was described back in 2006 as a ‘small and relatively unknown Islamist terror group’.47

Baghdadi was arrested on 4 February 2004 in Fallujah48 at the home of Nessayif Numan Nessayif, an old student friend from his days at the Islamic University.49 His detainee card gives his profession as ‘administrative work (secretary)’. He was released a little more than ten months later on 8 December 2004. I spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Myles B. Caggins III, who is the main spokesman for detainee policy at the US department of defense. He told me:

A lot of guys were being picked up at the time. He wasn’t ever charged with anything; he was arrested in a kind of a round-up. There was no evidence, it was just a case of ‘We’re think you’re bad, you’re associating with bad people so come to us.’ But there was nothing to hold him on. At the time we did not collect evidence in any kind of mature way like we do now.50

Baghdadi was jailed at Camp Bucca, the huge detention facility run by the US military in southern Iraq. The US defence department told me he was placed in Compound 6, which was characterized as a ‘medium security Sunni compound’.51 It was here he would meet many of the Ba’athist army officers who would help him build his Islamic State. At least nine Islamic State leaders, including Baghdadi, are known to have been in Bucca at various times during the camp’s five-year existence. The list of Bucca alumni includes Abu Qasim (aka Abdullah Ahmad al-Meshadani), in charge of foreign fighters and suicide bombers; Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (aka Fadil Ahmad Abdallah Hayyali), one-time deputy to Baghdadi; Islamic State ‘media sheikh’ Abu Muhammad al-Adnani; and Haji Bakr (aka Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi), Baghdadi’s ruthless one-time military leader and chief adviser.52 Many people such as Hisham al-Hashimi believe that it was this experience that transformed Baghdadi into the ruthless terrorist he became. Hashimi told me, ‘When he was captured in Fallujah, he was innocent; the Americans were looking for someone else. When they captured him, they humiliated him and they treated him badly. This made him full of hate for the Americans.’53 There are few people more knowledgeable than Hashimi when it comes to Islamic State but again, perhaps this may be a case of filling in the gaps in the absence of hard facts and real knowledge. Baghdadi may well have been humiliated in Bucca but by then he had also set up his own jihadi insurgency in the shape of the Army of the Sunni People, as well as, it is alleged, spending four years in Afghanistan in the company of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Camp Bucca processed 100,000 suspected Sunni insurgents in the five years of its operation and became known as a ‘terrorist’ university,54 and at one time by the US officers running the Surge as ‘the most decisive place on the battleground’.55 The US military realized it was not just housing detainees but, thanks to 24/7 brainwashing of inmates by the well-established insurgency in the camp, it was ‘creating the next terrorist class’. Peter Mansoor, the senior colonel who acted as executive officer to General David Petraeus during the Surge, told me, ‘We had always treated Bucca as a minimum security facility and it really enabled the extreme among them to proselytize to the not-so-extreme, and it turned it into a jihadist university. Through the Surge we tried to change that but by then a lot of the damage had already been done.’56

I also spoke to James Skylar Gerrond, who spent two years as a former reserve military police captain at Bucca. He described the detainees at Bucca:

They were prisoners in the sense that the vast majority of them had not gone through any kind of trial process, so they were being held but they weren’t being held because there was a judicial mechanism in place that had pronounced them guilty.

The detainees themselves were largely Sunni, I would say as many as eighty to eighty-five percent. Within that group, there was a gradation of ideological belief and different levels of radicalization.

Gerrond said the prison held a mixed bag of jihadis and ex- Ba’athist insurgents who now had the opportunity to get to know each other and plot what to do on their release. He believes inmates were radicalized in Bucca, saying:

We [were] very mindful of the fact that a lot of these guys were motivated out of practicality. Some of the insurgent groups were well funded. They got paid to be an insurgent; this was a job for some of them. Our mechanism for capturing detainees and bringing them to Bucca was not perfect either.

Some detainees were dead to rights and we knew exactly who they were. But in other cases, say if a convoy had been ambushed from a particular location maybe multiple times, then they [the US military] would go back and gather up all the military-age males and some of them were absolutely innocent. In theory these guys would have got out as they were processed through the system but the legal process was so slow.

Our concern about the radicalization was primarily with regards to bringing people in who may have literally been our allies beforehand, people who supported the Americans and the invasion and our mission of bringing democracy to Iraq. Then what we do is round them up and put them in a detention facility. Our biggest concern was that we were locking up people who were not ideologically motivated before they came but would become that way thanks to some of the more radical elements inside.

Gerrond doesn’t believe that to be the case with Baghdadi, adding:

The idea that he went into Bucca as some kind of innocent ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ kind of guy and then he had this complete personality change to the extent that he would be the leader of a multinational Islamic insurgency/caliphate – that is beyond belief. It is more believable to me that he came in as some kind of younger middle management kind of insurgent leader, or a local insurgent leader, who then through a series of events over the last eight to ten years rose up through the ranks and is now leading ISIS. To say we had him and let him slip through our fingers when we could not have known what he would become is just silly.57

After Bucca

Eventually, in December 2004, Baghdadi was released after a panel of US military officers called a combined review and release board reviewed his case. ‘They looked at his record and there was nothing to hold him for,’ said Lieutenant Colonel Caggins. Hisham al-Hashimi claimed that on his release from Bucca, Baghdadi lived in Syria for two years, until around 2006, working for Zarqawi, but again details about exactly what he was doing in Syria are vague. Apparently, according to US intelligence, Baghdadi was active in the Anbari town of Qaim, which is on the Syrian border, and was allegedly involved in the torture and public execution of local civilians.58 This also sounds likely. After all, Qaim was where the Sunni sheikhs first rose up against Zarqawi in 2005 and the subsequent brutal suppression by the jihadis involved both torture and public executions, and worse.59 Who better to put down a rebellion than the ruthless and cruel administration assistant and PhD student? Hashimi thought Baghdadi was involved in the group’s propaganda during his stay in Syria. That again would make sense when you take into account the huge priority given to propaganda by Islamic State later.

It is known that Baghdadi had started his doctorate in Baghdad at some stage before his imprisonment and that he had returned to it by 2007, again it is thought at the Islamic University. Baghdadi’s PhD in Islamic studies would help his advance through the ranks of his fellow jihadis. But he did not impress one of his tutors at the time, who spoke of Baghdadi following his 2014 military offensive, possibly with the benefit of hindsight. Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a Sharia expert, said of the Islamic State leader: ‘He was of limited intelligence, slow to understand, pale in intuitive grasp and I had got to know him very well.’60

Nevertheless, in March 2007, Baghdadi submitted his doctoral thesis; it received eighty-two points out of a hundred and was marked ‘very good’, but the thesis itself has gone missing.61 At the end of January 2006, Baghdadi joined his Army of the Sunni People to Zarqawi’s Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC). Zarqawi had appealed grandiosely ‘to all armies and brigades of Ahlu Al-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama’ah, I appeal to all of you, I appeal to all of you, I appeal to all of you, my people! Answer Allah’s call for unity, consolidation of efforts, and straitening of the array.’62

By all accounts, Baghdadi rose quickly through the MSC, becoming a member of the organization’s Majilis al-Shura Council, its main political and decision-making body. Following the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006, he also became ‘General Supervisor of the Shari’ah Committees, putting to test his knowledge of Islamic law’.63 He also grew close to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, as one of only three men the ISI leader trusted as his personal couriers, and often drafted his most important messages.64

Baghdadi is thought to have at least two wives, Iraa Rajab al-Qaisi,65 and Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Kubeisi.66 The biography penned by Abu Humam al-Athari claims that Baghdadi combined ‘the calmness and leisureliness of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his high security sense, and took much of the cleverness and courage of Abu Ayyub al-Masri’.67 He would easily outdo these ferocious men in the management of savagery.

In 2010, Hashimi was stunned to hear that his fellow student had risen to the top of what was left of ISI. ‘I had heard he was a religious leader within the organization,’ he said, ‘but I was shocked to hear that he had become the leader of the organization.’68

The source known as ‘Wikibaghdady’ asserts that the former Ba’athist intelligence brigadier Haji Bakr acted as kingmaker for Baghdadi in the days following the deaths of Masri and Abu Omar. Haji Bakr quickly became Baghdadi’s right-hand man and probably his most important strategist.69 According to Wikibaghdady, ‘a lot of people considered Haji Bakr to be arrogant next to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who many considered to be a quiet personality.’70 Hashimi described Haji Bakr as ‘highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician’.71 When the US dissolved the army and security institutions, Bakr was left ‘bitter and unemployed’ like so many others.72 Bakr joined forces with Zarqawi and was eventually held in Bucca for approximately two years, from 2006 to 2008.73 Many other Ba’athist officers would form Baghdadi’s inner circle.

Wikibaghdady also claimed, ‘Every person in al-Baghdadi’s inner circle is 100 percent Iraqi and he doesn’t accept any other nationality because he does not trust anyone.’ Haji Bakr and Baghdadi drew up a hit list of rivals and other enemies to be killed, starting with twenty people; soon the list lengthened to a hundred. The pair charged another ex-officer, Abu Omar’s cousin72 and future ‘security chief’75 Abu Safwan Rifaii, with the task of carrying out the assassinations. It seems an extraordinary strategy for a group whose leadership had been all but wiped out by the US and Iraqi military, but it demonstrates the relentlessness and ruthlessness employed by ISI leaders even against their own. Baghdadi and Haji Bakr also consolidated their power by loading the ISI’s governing shura council with their own men.

The next three years would be relatively lean killing years for the Baghdadi organization; the annual civilian death toll in Iraq fell to around 4,300, almost seven times less than in the bloody years of 2006 and 2007 and a third of the figure in the three years following the invasion of 2003.76 However, Baghdadi would soon prove to the world how lethal he could be, and in 2011 he took the critical decision that would lead ultimately to the caliphate in 2014 – to enter the Syrian civil war. He also rebuilt ISI finances thanks to a number of extortion rackets. The fundraising included placing checkpoints on the roads and forcing lorry and truck drivers to hand over $200 a time, as well as terrifying minorities such as the Christians into handing over money. Any company boss awarded a government contract would be targeted and threatened with death unless a payment was made. The fundraising would also include one of the group’s tried and tested rackets – selling oil on the black market.77

By October 2011, the US had recognized the danger posed by Baghdadi, and the state department posted up a $10 million reward for information leading to his whereabouts.78 By US standards, this was a huge amount of money and clearly indicated America’s growing concern about a possible resurgence by ISI. James Jeffrey, the US Ambassador to Iraq at the time, said America knew that Baghdadi was a more serious threat compared to his predecessors.79‘We knew all about him from 2010,’ said Jeffrey. ‘We knew his background that he was a Sunni and had been in Bucca. But we just couldn’t find him. This guy had much better operational security [than Masi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi]. He had learned from what had happened to his predecessors.’

Baghdad’s Christians were the first victims of Baghdadi’s first high profile act of terror. On 31 October 2010, Baghdadi sent about six suicide bombers to attack the heavily fortified Assyrian Chaldean Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation, in the Karrada district of Baghdad, in yet another lethal ISI assault on Iraq’s Christian minority. They struck at evening Mass and started killing worshippers immediately; one jihadi screamed, ‘We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell.’80 When Iraqi commandos stormed the church, the jihadis exploded their suicide vests. A total of fifty-eight people died, including priests and policemen.81

In Baghdad I went with Michael, a Christian friend, to the Our Lady of Salvation church, which is enclosed behind concrete blast walls and swirls of barbed wire. ‘The sister of a friend of mine survived the attack because she was small enough to hide inside the piano,’ Michael said. ‘Another of my friends lost her sister-in-law and all their kids. It was [a] very big tragedy for us Christians.’ Michael said the attack caused an exodus of Christians from Iraq. ‘People were grabbing any chance of getting out of this country,’ he said. ‘Since the attack I know personally of at least seven or eight families who have left since the attack.

‘We used to live in peaceful coexistence. We used to have midnight Masses and to go to parties during our festivals; now it’s different. All that became impossible.’82

The attack even disgusted leading members of al-Qaeda. A letter written shortly afterwards, probably in January 2011, was found at Osama bin Laden’s house referring to the attack. Thought to have been written by the US al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Ghadan,83 who had been preparing to write to Christians inviting them to ‘join Islam’, the letter demanded that al-Qaeda should ‘declare its disapproval of these and other actions that the organization so-called the Islamic State of Iraq is carrying [out].’ Ghadan added revealingly:

I believe sooner or later – hopefully sooner – it is necessary that al-Qaeda publicly announces that it severs its organizational ties with the Islamic State of Iraq, and to make it known that the relationship between its leadership and that of the State [ISI] have [sic] not existed for several years, and that the decision to declare a state was taken without consultation with the leadership and this innovation led to divisions among jihadis and their supporters inside and outside Iraq.84

Not long afterwards, on 2 May 2011, the letter would be among the treasure trove of documents seized by US Navy SEALS at Abbottabad after they had killed bin Laden. In a statement issued a week after the Abbottabad mission, Baghdadi warned there would be revenge attacks for bin Laden’s death. ‘I swear by God, blood for blood and destruction for destruction,’ he said.85 In August 2011, Baghdadi issued a further statement promising a hundred terror attacks in retaliation for the deaths of bin Laden, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Masri. ‘It will be diversified,’ he promised, ‘between storming and martyrdom operations, in addition to devices, silencers, and snipers in all the cities, villages and provinces.’86 Ten days later a suicide bomber hid his bomb in a fake splint and entered the Umm al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad. The explosion killed twenty-eight people including the important Sunni politician Khalid al-Fahdawi.87 At least sixty-nine Iraqis died in a string of bomb attacks in Baghdad on 22 December 2011.88

Increasingly, these ISI spectaculars were finding it harder to lead the news bulletins. During 2011, the world had been focused on the tumult of the Arab Spring. Many people had long tired of hearing about the endless violence in Iraq. Baghdadi would also turn his deadly attention to the Arab Spring and the tragedy unfolding across the border in Syria. In mid-2011, almost on a hunch, the ISI leader decided to send a tiny group of jihadis, eight in total,89 across the border to fight in the civil war. The decision would have huge ramifications for the future of the region and the world. It led to the rebirth of ISI, a war with al-Qaeda and ultimately to the creation of the caliphate.