The march of al-Qaeda-linked militants towarsds the Iraqi capital is a coup for the shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - a former US detainee
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (inset) and fighters of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq Photo: REUTERS
The FBI “most wanted” mugshot shows a tough, swarthy figure, his hair in a jailbird crew-cut. The $10 million price on his head, meanwhile, suggests that whoever released him from US custody four years ago may now be regretting it.
Taken during his years as a detainee at the US-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, this is one of the few known photographs of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS). But while he may lack the photogenic qualities of his hero, Osama bin Laden, he is fast becoming the new poster-boy for the global jihadist movement.
Well-organised and utterly ruthless, the ex-preacher is the driving force behind al-Qaeda’s resurgence throughout Syria and Iraq, putting it at the forefront of the war to topple President Bashar al-Assad and starting a fresh campaign of mayhem against the Western-backed government in Baghdad.
This week, his forces have achieved their biggest coup in Iraq to date, seizing control of government buildings in Mosul, the country's third biggest city, and marching further south to come within striking distance of the capital, Baghdad. Coming on top of similar operations in January that planted the black jihadi flag in the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, it gives al-Qaeda control of large swathes of the north and west of the country, and poses the biggest security crisis since the US pull-out two years ago.
But who is exactly is the man who is threatening to plunge Iraq back to its darkest days, and why has he become so effective?
As with many of al-Qaeda’s leaders, precise details are sketchy. His FBI rap sheet offers little beyond the fact that he is aged around 42, and was born as Ibrahim Ali al-Badri in the city of Samarrah, which lies on a palm-lined bend in the Tigris north of Baghdad. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre, as is his other name, Abu Duaa, which translates roughly as “Father of the Summons”.
Some describe him as a farmer who was arrested by US forces during a mass sweep in 2005, who then became radicalised at Camp Bucca, where many al-Qaeda commanders were held. Others, though, believe he was a radical even during the largely secular era of Saddam Hussein, and became a prominent al-Qaeda player very shortly after the US invasion.
“This guy was a Salafi (a follower of a fundamentalist brand of Islam), and Saddam’s regime would have kept a close eye on him,” said Dr Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“He was also in Camp Bucca for several years, which suggests he was already considered a serious threat when he went in there.”
Armed tribesmen and Iraqi police stand guard in a street as clashes rage on in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad (AFP/Getty Images)
That theory seems backed by US intelligence reports from 2005, which describe him as al-Qaeda’s point man in Qaim, a fly-blown town in Iraq’s western desert.
“Abu Duaa was connected to the intimidation, torture and murder of local civilians in Qaim”, says a Pentagon document. “He would kidnap individuals or entire families, accuse them, pronounce sentence and then publicly execute them.”
Why such a ferocious individual was deemed fit for release in 2009 is not known. One possible explanation is that he was one of thousands of suspected insurgents granted amnesty as the US began its draw down in Iraq. Another, though, is that rather like Keyser Söze, the enigmatic crimelord in the film The Usual Suspects, he may actually be several different people.
“We either arrested or killed a man of that name about half a dozen times, he is like a wraith who keeps reappearing, and I am not sure where fact and fiction meet,” said Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British special forces commander who helped US efforts against al-Qaeda in Iraq. “There are those who want to promote the idea that this man is invincible, when it may actually be several people using the same nom de guerre.”
Sunni insurgents guard the streets of Fallujah (AP)
What does seem clear, however, is that al-Qaeda now has its most formidable leadership since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who kidnapped the British hostage, Ken Bigley, and who died in a missile strike in 2006.
When al-Baghdadi was announced as a new leader in 2010 - following the killing of two other top commanders - al-Qaeda was seriously on the back foot, not just in Iraq but regionwide. In former strongholds like Fallujah, its fighters had been routed after their brutality sparked a rebellion by local tribes. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, drone strikes were destroying the cream of its senior leadership. And the following year, the onset of the Arab Spring revolutions, with their emphasis on democracy and human rights, made it look simply irrelevant.
Indeed, when bin Laden himself was killed in May 2011, Baghdadi’s pledge to revenge his death with 100 terrorist attacks across Iraq looked like little more than bluster.
Today, he is already well past that target, thanks to a devastating campaign of car bombings and Mumbai-style killing sprees that has pushed Iraq’s death toll back up to around 1,000 per month.
“Baghdadi is actually more capable than the man he took over from,” said Dr Knights. “It’s one of those unfortunate situations where taking out the previous leadership has made things worse, not better.”
Quietly-spoken and publicity-shy, Baghdadi is said to be fond of turning up on frontline operations himself. Mindful, though, of the price on his head — second only to the $25m reward for al-Qaeda’s No 1, Ayman al Zawahari - he takes extensive precautions.
Fighters who have met him speak of a shadowy figure who can mimic a number of regional accents to blend in. In the company of all but the closest devotees, he wears a mask to prevent anyone getting a close look at him.
He has, however, won respect for being less gung-ho than other al-Qaeda leaders: while suicide bombers are a key part of his arsenal, he is said often to veto operations that put his other fighters at too much risk.
In the same spirit, his greatest coup so far was to free around 500 of his most loyal supporters during a spectacular jail break last July at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, supposedly the most-heavily guarded facility in the country. It is a trick he is believed to have repeated this week in Mosul, where three jails holding at least 1,000 militants were "liberated".
Many of those freed in the earlier Abu Ghraib break out in July are believed to have headed to neighbouring Syria, where they have proved decisive in turning al-Qaeda into the pre-eminent rebel movement in the fight against President Assad.
Al-Baghdadi himself is also believed to have relocated there, and last year renamed his group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which sees both countries as a single al-Qaeda caliphate. Already the group has about 7,000 fighters in northern Syria, including volunteers from Britain and Europe whom it is feared may one day start terror campaigns at home.
Such has been ISIS's brutality in Syria that it has even alienated other al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and prompted numerous reports that it is at least partly a creation of President Assad's intelligence services, designed to descredit and disunite the rebel movement.
That, though, does not square with Baghdadi's known-hatred of Shia Muslims, the sect to which Mr Assad belongs. Like most other al-Qaeda extremists, Baghdadi views Shias as apostates, be they those in Syria or those in the Shia-majority government in Baghdad.
“One sheikh who knew Baghdadi said he was very sectarian, even more so than other al-Qaeda leaders,” said Sterling Jensen, an interpreter tasked by the US military to liaise with Fallujah’s sheikhs during the rebellion against al-Qaeda in 2007.
Some believe that Bagdadi will eventually make the mistake of many of his predecessors, by over-flexing his muscles and seizing more territory than he can hold. But similar predictions when his men attacked Fallujah and Ramadi in January - and five months on, they are still there.
This is an updated version of a previous article that appeared in The Telegraph on January 11, 2014.