Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi served as ISIS’s caliph, Arabic for “successor,” since June 2014 until his death in 2019. In assuming the title, Baghdadi declared himself the religious, political, and military leader of all Muslims.“ISIS Spokesman Declares Caliphate, Rebrands Group as ‘Islamic State,’” SITE Institute, June 29, 2014, https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/isis-spokesman-declares-caliphate-rebrands-group-as-islamic-state.html; “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: The man who would be caliph,” Week (London), September 13, 2014, http://theweek.com/article/index/267920/abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-the-man-who-would-be-caliph. Baghdadi was in hiding since the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq.Martin Chulov, “‘We will get him’: the long hunt for Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Guardian (London), January 15, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/15/long-hunt-for-isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi. He had been declared dead or seriously wounded on several occasions but reappeared in ISIS propaganda recordings, most recently in August 2018.Liz Sly, “Islamic State leader Baghdadi resurfaces, urges supporters to keep up the fight,” Washington Post, August 22, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/islamic-state-leader-baghdadi-resurfaces-urges-supporters-to-keep-up-the-fight/2018/08/22/ae3d9fe6-a657-11e8-ad6f-080770dcddc2_story.html?utm_term=.dbc76e0f32b8; “Islamic State chief, in rare speech, urges followers to fight on,” Reuters, August 22, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi/islamic-state-chief-in-rare-speech-urges-followers-to-fight-on-idUSKCN1L722F. The U.S. government announced on October 27, 2019, that U.S. forces killed Baghdadi in a raid by U.S. forces in Syria the previous night.Steve Holland and Phil Stewart, “Trump hails death of ‘depraved’ Islamic State leader Baghdadi in U.S. raid,” Reuters, October 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi/trump-hails-death-of-depraved-islamic-state-leader-baghdadi-in-u-s-raid-idUSKBN1X602N. ISIS appointed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi as Baghdadi’s successor.Hesham Abdulkhalek, Yousef Saba, and Ulf Laessing, “Islamic State confirms Baghdadi is dead, appoints successor,” Reuters, October 31, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-confirmation/islamic-state-confirms-baghdadi-is-dead-appoints-successor-idUSKBN1XA25A.
Born “Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri” in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq, Baghdadi had been careful to reveal little about his identity or background. There were reportedly only two publicly available photographs of Baghdadi prior to ISIS’s rise to the international stage in 2014. Known as the “invisible sheikh,” Baghdadi wore a mask when addressing other ISIS commanders. However, an un-masked Baghdadi addressed members of ISIS in July 2014 from the pulpit of Mosul’s Great Mosque.Aaron Y Zelin, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” BBC News, July 30, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28560449; “Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” BBC News, last modified July 5, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27801676.
In 1999, Baghdadi received his master’s degree and enrolled in doctorate programs at Saddam University for Islamic Studies in Quranic recitation and Quranic studies, respectively. While in graduate school, Baghdadi reportedly read the works of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had espoused jihadism. At this time, Baghdadi’s paternal uncle, Ismail al-Badri, convinced him to join the Brotherhood. However, by 2000, Baghdadi reportedly grew impatient with the mainstream Brotherhood for what he saw as their prioritization of theory over action.William McCants, “The Believer,” Brookings Institute, September 1, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/thebeliever.
In response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi founded the Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah (Army of the People of the Sunna and Communal Solidarity), a militant Sunni group to fight U.S. troops.Aaron Y Zelin, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” BBC News, July 30, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28560449. Baghdadi was subsequently captured by U.S. forces and detained at Camp Bucca, an American-run prison camp along the Iraq-Kuwait border. Bucca held 100,000 suspected Jihadists between 2003 and 2009, including nine men who would go on to earn top positions within ISIS’s command.Terrance McCoy, “Camp Bucca: The US prison that became the birthplace of Isis,” Independent (London), November 4, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/camp-bucca-the-us-prison-that-became-the-birthplace-of-isis-9838905.html#gallery. Though the dates of his internment differ between reports, experts have placed Baghdadi at Bucca as early as 2004 and as late as 2009.Janine Di Giovanni, “WHO IS ISIS LEADER ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI?” Newsweek, December 8, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/2014/12/19/who-isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-290081.html. The prison, which operated in Umm Qasr, Iraq, from 2003 to 2009, has held inmates that would go on to become top leaders in ISIS.“From Bucca to Kobani: The Hybrid Ideology of the Islamic State,” Soufan Group, October 24, 2014, http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-from-bucca-to-kobani-the-hybrid-ideology-of-the-islamic-state/;
Andrew Thompson and Jeremy Suri, “How America Helped ISIS,” New York Times, October 1, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/02/opinion/how-america-helped-isis.html?_r=1.
Shortly after his release from Camp Bucca, Baghdadi joined the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), the successor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq. In April 2010, Baghdadi became the emir of ISI.Tim Arango, “Top Qaeda Leaders in Iraq Reported Killed in Raid,” New York Times, April 20, 2010, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DA1F3DF933A15757C0A9669D8B63; “Profile: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,” BBC News, June 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27801676; William McCants, “The Believer,” Brookings Institution, September 1, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/thebeliever.
The chaos of the Syrian civil war—beginning in 2011—soon provided an opportunity for Baghdadi’s ISI to expand into Syria. As a result of the chaos, al-Qaeda formed an affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, under the leadership of local al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Golani. In the spring of 2013, Baghdadi ordered Golani and his Nusra Front to cease cooperation with Sunni militant groups in Syria and to focus on seizing territory. Golani refused to defer to Baghdadi’s strategy.William McCants, “The Believer,” Brookings Institute, September 1, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/thebeliever.
In April 2013, Baghdadi publicly and unilaterally announced that the Nusra Front was an extension of ISI. He named the merger of the two groups “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” or ISIS.“ISI Confirms That Jabhat Al-Nusra Is Its Extension In Syria, Declares 'Islamic State Of Iraq And Al-Sham' As New Name Of Merged Group,” MEMRI, April 8, 2013, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/7119.htm. In a recorded statement released on jihadist websites, Baghdadi said, “It is time to announce to the Levantine people and the whole world that Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front] is merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq.”“Iraqi al-Qaeda and Syrian group ‘merge, ’” Al Jazeera, April 9, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/04/201349194856244589.html. Golani again refused to capitulate to Baghdadi, leading al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to step in and warn Baghdadi against the merge. Baghdadi rejected his command and continued the group’s growth into Syria.Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Syria’s al-Nusra front- ruthless, organized and taking control,” Guardian (London), July 10, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/10/syria-al-nusra-front-jihadi. On June 29, 2014, Baghdadi declared the creation of the “Islamic caliphate” and named himself as the caliph (leader).“The jihadist offensive in Iraq: a timeline,” Agence France-Presse, August 15, 2014, http://www.afp.com/en/node/2730918.
On July 5, 2014, Baghdadi made a public appearance at Mosul’s Great Mosque, and called on the world’s Muslims to “obey” him as caliph. Baghdadi proclaimed: “I was appointed to rule you but I am not the best among you…If you see me acting truly, then follow me. If you see me acting falsely, then advise and guide me…. If I disobey God, then do not obey me.”Hannah Strange, “Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses Muslims in Mosul,” Telegraph (London), July 5, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10948480/Islamic-State-leader-Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi-addresses-Muslims-in-Mosul.html;
William McCants, “The Believer,” Brookings Institute, September 1, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/thebeliever.
Baghdadi is the subject of U.N., EU, and other sanctions.“The List established and maintained by the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee with respect to individuals, groups, undertakings and other entities associated with Al-Qaida,” United States Security Council, October 28, 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/pdf/AQList.pdf. He was falsely reported killed in an Iraqi airstrike in October 2015, was rumored to have been wounded in a coalition airstrike in June 2016, and was falsely reported killed in a Russian airstrike in May 2017.Ahmed Rasheed, “Islamic State figures killed in air strike; Baghdadi not believed among them,” Reuters, October 12, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-baghdadi-idUSKCN0S50KI20151012; “U.S., Iraqi officials can't confirm report Islamic State leader Baghdadi wounded,” Reuters, June 10, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-idUSKCN0YW0QT; Dmitry Solovyov and Ahmen Rasheed, “Russia's military says it may have killed IS leader; West, Iraq skeptical,” Reuters, June 16, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-baghdadi/russias-military-says-it-may-have-killed-is-leader-west-iraq-skeptical-idUSKBN1970O2; Richard Spencer, “Airstrike injuries forced Baghdadi to cede control of Isis,” Times (London), February 13, 2018, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/baghdadi-gave-up-leadership-of-islamic-state-after-airstrike-injuries-3522wr0jt. U.S. officials confirmed that Baghdadi was severely wounded in a coalition airstrike in May 2017, forcing him to relinquish control over the terror organization for five months.Nick Patton Walsh, “ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi injured in airstrike last May, sources say,” CNN, February 12, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/12/middleeast/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-wounded-intl/index.html. Baghdadi released an audio recording on September 28, 2017, where he referenced current events in the recording to prove that he is still alive.Katherine Lam, “ISIS releases alleged al-Baghdadi tape, as shadowy leader appears to again escape death,” Fox News, September 28, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/09/28/is-releases-purported-audio-message-from-top-leader.html. One month later, U.S.-backed forces drove ISIS out of its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria.Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “Raqqa, ISIS ‘Capital,” Is Captured, U.S.-Backed Forces Say,” New York Times, October 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/middleeast/isis-syria-raqqa.html.
In April 2018, a group of ISIS militants released a statement over the organization’s social media channels renewing their loyalty to Baghdadi.“Islamic State militants renew loyalty pledge to 'caliph' Baghdadi,” Reuters, April 4, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-islamic-state/islamic-state-militants-renew-loyalty-pledge-to-caliph-baghdadi-idUSKCN1HB1TC. On August 22, 2018, ISIS’s al-Furqan media group released an audio recording of Baghdadi calling on ISIS supporters to “persevere” and carry out lone-wolf attacks using bombs, knives, and cars. Baghdadi referenced current events to demonstrate that he is still alive, though experts could not immediately confirm whether the voice in the recording was actually his.Liz Sly, “Islamic State leader Baghdadi resurfaces, urges supporters to keep up the fight,” Washington Post, August 22, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/islamic-state-leader-baghdadi-resurfaces-urges-supporters-to-keep-up-the-fight/2018/08/22/ae3d9fe6-a657-11e8-ad6f-080770dcddc2_story.html?utm_term=.dbc76e0f32b8; “Islamic State chief, in rare speech, urges followers to fight on,” Reuters, August 22, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi/islamic-state-chief-in-rare-speech-urges-followers-to-fight-on-idUSKCN1L722F.
On the night of October 26, 2019, U.S. forces raided a compound in the village of Barisha in Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border. According to U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. forces chased Baghdadi into a tunnel where he detonated a suicide vest. U.S. officials identified Baghdadi through a DNA test of the remains. Baghdadi also killed two of his children when his vest exploded, according to U.S. authorities. Five ISIS members were also killed during the assault. U.S. forces also reportedly captured valuable data and intelligence from the raid. The operation was named after U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller, whom ISIS had captured in 2013. Baghdadi reportedly raped Mueller during her captivity. Mueller died in 2015 in ISIS custody.Steve Holland and Phil Stewart, “Trump hails death of ‘depraved’ Islamic State leader Baghdadi in U.S. raid,” Reuters, October 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi/trump-hails-death-of-depraved-islamic-state-leader-baghdadi-in-u-s-raid-idUSKBN1X602N; Chandelis Duster, “The Baghdadi raid was named after ISIS victim Kayla Mueller. Her parents say they’re ‘grateful,’” CNN, October 28, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/27/politics/kayla-mueller-parents-reaction-to-baghdadi-death/index.html; Zachary Cohen, Barbara Starr, and Ryan Browne, “Pentagon releases first images from raid that killed ISIS leader,” CNN, October 31, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/30/politics/pentagon-baghdadi-raid-video/index.html.
ISIS’s Amaq News Agency acknowledged Baghdadi’s death on October 31 and praised him for his “military conquests.”Raja Abdulrahim and Nazih Osseiran, “Islamic State Names New Leader to Succeed Baghdadi,” Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-names-new-leader-to-succeed-baghdadi-11572537863. Amaq announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi as his successor and ISIS’s new caliph. Amaq did not provide other details of Qurayshi’s identity.Hesham Abdulkhalek, Yousef Saba, and Ulf Laessing, “Islamic State confirms Baghdadi is dead, appoints successor,” Reuters, October 31, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-confirmation/islamic-state-confirms-baghdadi-is-dead-appoints-successor-idUSKBN1XA25A; Raja Abdulrahim and Nazih Osseiran, “Islamic State Names New Leader to Succeed Baghdadi,” Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-names-new-leader-to-succeed-baghdadi-11572537863; Rick Gladstone, “Isis Names New Leader as It Confirms Al-Bagdadi’s death,” New York Times, October 31, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/world/middleeast/isis-al-baghdadi-dead.html.
The U.N. Security Council designated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi through the UNSCR 1267/1989 al-Qaida Sanctions Committee on October 5, 2011.“The List established and maintained by the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee with respect to individuals, groups, undertakings and other entities associated with Al-Qaida,” United States Security Council, October 28, 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/pdf/AQList.pdf.
Israel designated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a Declared Individual under Article 2 of the Prohibition of Financing Terrorism on January 18, 2004.“נספחים - רשימות הארגונים והיחידים שהוכרזו כפעילי טרור,” Prime Minister’s Office, accessed September 7, 2014, http://www.pmo.gov.il/Secretary/GovDecisions/2013/Documents/des124B.doc.
The United Kingdom designated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an Asset Freeze Target on October 17, 2011.“CONSOLIDATED LIST OF FINANCIAL SANCTIONS TARGETS IN THE UK,” GOV.UK, last modified September 3, 2014, http://hmt-sanctions.s3.amazonaws.com/sanctionsconlist.htm.
The U.S. Department of State designated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224 on October 4, 2011.“Terrorist Designation of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri,” U.S. Department of State, October 4, 2011, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/10/174971.htm.