Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Isis leader is a figurehead for whom nothing is beyond the pale

His persona has shaped Isis's brutal and warped version of Islam

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The Independent Online

Standing in the Great Mosque of Mosul last year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his Islamic “caliphate” to the world. His leadership was a calling from God, he said.

Moments before, his men were rumoured to have murdered the mosque’s mufti and members of his staff for refusing to pledge allegiance. This merciless brutality has defined the so-called “Islamic State”, and its murderous rage is personified by its leader. Born Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in Samarra, central Iraq, Abu Bakr studied Islam at Baghdad University and became radicalised after the American invasion. He spent time in Camp Bucca, the main US-run prison in Iraq following the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib, and mixed with jihadists from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Upon his release in the early 2000s, Abu Bakr rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, running a campaign of terror against the Shia never seen before, and presiding over a sharia court in Anbar – personally carrying out his own terrible judgments on those who stood before him.

It was the outbreak of war in Syria that presented Abu Bakr, by this point leader of a revamped “Islamic State of Iraq” after al-Qaeda had disowned them for their brutality. He sent a lieutenant to create the Nusra Front in Syria, and in turn declared Nusra would be merged under his command, as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, had “deviated from the correct paths”. From there, Isis was born, spreading from Raqqa in central Syria to engulf northern and western Iraq in lightning and brutal campaigns that swept the armies of Syria and Iraq before them.

The enslavement of prisoners was justified, Isis said. The beheading of apostates a necessity, maiming for the slightest of infractions deemed “pious”.

The spoils of war – slaves, wives and money – were God’s reward for success on the battlefield, fighters were told. All decrees came from the top and, it seems, with the enslavement of the American Kayla Mueller, was practised as well as preached by Abu Bakr.

The Americans regard Abu Bakr as one of their most-wanted, but not the most wanted – Zawahiri, whom Baghdadi cast aside, still has a higher bounty on his head.

For Abu Bakr, despite many attempts to kill him, and multiple announcements of his injuries and death, survives.

But regardless of his condition, Isis endures. Abu Bakr’s persona has shaped the brutal and warped version of Islam on which Isis justifies its existence, but the group has now become more than the man.