Author: Kanan ROVSHANOGHLU
He has been "killed" several times. The terrorist #1 and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been nicknamed a 'ghost' after several unconfirmed statements by the US military claiming his elimination. But it seems that this time al-Baghdadi is dead indeed.
On October 26, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up during a US raid in the village of Barisha near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Remarkably, the operation to eliminate al-Baghdadi was very similar to the elimination of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Thus, both terrorists were found in unexpected places: after ten years of searching, bin Laden showed up at a villa in Abbottabad considered one of the main strongholds of the Pakistani army, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—north of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, although it was previously believed that he was still hiding in the centre of Syria, in Deir ez-Zor or the province of Anbar in Iraq.
Oddly enough, both operations were carried out a year before the US presidential elections, hence improving the ratings of American presidents. But, as in the case of bin Laden, the death of al-Baghdadi does not mean the end of the story with the terrorists.
The ISIS leader, born as Ibrahim Avvad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai and later known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was born on August 28, 1971 in a middle-class family from Samarra, Iraq. Al-Baghdadi came from a religious family, claiming later that his lineage dated back to the descendants of the prophet Muhammad. It was al-Baghdadi's belonging to the Quraishite clan that led to his election as a caliph, for it is widely believed that the caliph should be from the family of the prophet Muhammad.
Having been raised in religious environment since childhood, al-Baghdadi received a university degree in theology. In 1996, he graduated from the Faculty of Islamic Studies of th Baghdad University. In 1999 and 2007, he received a master's decree and became a doctor of theology at the Saddam University of Islamic Studies. Until 2004, al-Baghdadi lived with his two wives and six children in the Topchu region of Baghdad. The future caliph loved to read the Quran and was a successful football player in the local mosque team. In the same mosque, he taught children the Quran. Shortly after graduating from the university, al-Baghdadi joined the Muslim Brotherhood movement under the influence of his uncle.
Having been influenced by radical Islamists, al-Baghdadi soon chose the path of radical jihad. So, a few months after the capture of Iraq by the US military, al-Baghdadi became involved in the foundation of the radical jihadist group Jaish Ahlu-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah. In February 2004, the US military arrested al-Baghdadi in Fallujah, Iraq and took him to the Buqqah POW camp, where he spent ten months. During his imprisonment, al-Baghdadi was mainly engaged in religious activities, was an imam during community prayers and taught salah to prisoners. According to eyewitnesses, al-Baghdadi was able to reconcile rival groups, in particular, by trying to establish allied relations between groups loyal to Saddam Hussein and jihadists.
Immediately after his release in 2004, al-Baghdadi established contacts with like-minded groups whom he met in Buqqah. By the way, it was the former members of Saddam Hussein's army that played an instrumental role in strengthening ISIS in Iraq and the capture of Mosul in 2014 that al-Baghdadi had helped ten years ago in Bukka.
Al-Baghdadi joined ISIS's predecessor, the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. To promote al-Qaeda in Syria, a representative of the organization sent al-Baghdadi to Damascus.
After the death of al-Zarqawi in 2006, he was replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri. He soon renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq, which at that time was still part of Al Qaeda. During these years, al-Baghdadi slowly but steadily made himself a career with the organisation. Thanks to his religious education and commitment to radical ideas, al-Baghdadi quickly gained popularity. Initially, he became a member of the Sharia committee, followed by membership in the organisation's council, which in 2010 elected Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new emir of the group.
At that time, the US Army defeated the Islamic State of Iraq, having killed most of its members. When al-Baghdadi began to restructure the organisation, the Arab Spring had already reached Syria. Seizing the opportunity during the first skirmishes, al-Baghdadi sent his representative from Iraq to Syria to form the Syrian wing of the organisation.
In 2013, al-Baghdadi had a conflict with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's branch operating in Syria. In the same year, al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of ISIS and the annexation of the Al-Nusra Front, although the front's leader, Abu Mohammed Jolani, refused to join al-Baghdadi. Relations between Al-Qaida and ISIS ceased later, and in 2014, after al-Zawahiri expelled al-Baghdadi from Al-Qaeda, a war broke out between the two organisations in Syria. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri soon issued a statement declaring the Al-Nusra Front the only representation of his organisation in Syria. After the defeat of the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS managed to subjugate large territories in Iraq and Syria in a short time.
On June 10, 2014, ISIS captured Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, and in August announced the creation of Islamic state, or caliphate. Al-Baghdadi began reading Friday sermons in the thousand-year-old Mosul mosque and declared himself the head of the new state, a caliph.
In general, under the leadership of al-Baghdadi, ISIS has captured more than 88 thousand sq.km. of territories in Iraq and Syria with a population of 8-10 million people. Not a single leader of a terrorist organisation has ever achieved such success. Al-Baghdadi's seemingly super-fast "success" was a result of more than five years of struggle for power and material resources. This struggle was accompanied by violence, brutal massacres and executions destroying the lives of thousands of people.
The Elusive Caliph
Back in 2011, the US promised a reward of $10 million for information leading to al-Baghdadi's capture. After the announcement of ISIS, the amount increased to $25 million. Prior to this, al-Baghdadi had been "killed" five times, but each time the news about his death was not confirmed, despite the credibility of information sources. In 2015, it was reported that al-Baghdadi was killed in a bombing, and in 2017—near Mosul. Therefore, the latest news about al-Baghdadi's elimination by the US military was initially questioned. Russian official sources pointed to the "insufficiency" of evidence leading to al-Baghdadi's death.
But the latest news and the announcement of the new leader of ISIS five days later shows that this time al-Baghdadi was killed indeed. In March 2019, the US and the coalition of Syrian Democratic Forces defeated the remaining ISIS groups in Baghuz in the east of the country. It was then that the final victory over ISIS was announced. But back in 2017, the Iraqi government made a similar statement, announcing the seizure of the organisation's last position in the country. But, as we can see, ISIS continues to carry out its covert operations.
Five days after the news of the death of al-Baghdadi, ISIS announced its new leader. However, there is almost no information available about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi. This name is just a nickname of the new leader of the organisation, for the last two words indicate his descent from the family of the prophet, as in the case of al-Baghdadi, which is a good reason to consider him a new caliph. In ISIS-run media, the name of the new leader is indicated as al-Sheikh al-Mujahid al-Alim al-Amil, hinting that he is a mujahid, as well as a person who is knowledgeable in science and has practical experience.
It is rumoured that the real name of the new "caliph" is Amir Mohammed Saeed al-Mowlah, or Abdullah al-Afari, also known as Abdullah Gardash or Abu Omar al-Turkmani, whom al-Baghdadi announced as his successor in August 2019.
Abdullah Gardash was born in 1976, served in the Iraqi army and received a theological education at the Mosul University. He taught theology, hence receiving a nickname of "ustadh" (teacher). Later, he joined the local wing of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and in 2004, together with al-Baghdadi, was serving his term at the Buqqah camp. According to reports, Gardash's father is an imam of one of the mosques in Mosul. Both Gardash and al-Baghdadi received theological education. However, it is claimed that Abdullah Gardash, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, is crueller than al-Baghdadi. This may definitely affect the future of the organisation. Perhaps a number of ISIS members will return to al-Qaeda or even leave the organisation.
Anyway, the new leader of ISIS will not be as popular as al-Baghdadi. But the terrorist organisation will continue to exist but similar to al-Qaeda. The difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS was that the former was an underground organisation that secretly committed terrorist attacks. ISIS, however, occupied large territories and proclaimed itself a state with relevant attributes of a state, such as own government, police, special services and government structures. ISIS no longer possesses territories but its armed groups continue to remain in eight Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, the death of al-Baghdadi marks the beginning of a new and more difficult period for ISIS.