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3 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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Will Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi continue to snare recruits from beyond the grave?

Colin Freeman

In early 2014, while reporting on a particularly savage wave of car bombings in Iraq, I asked a British general if he had heard of a terrorist with the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Then little known to the wider world, Al Baghdadi was already building a reputation as a fearsome operator. Yet other than a prison mugshot and a string of other aliases such as “the Ghost” and “the Invisible Sheikh”, he was an enigma.

"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,” the general told me. “There are those who promote the idea that this man is invincible, when it may actually be several people using the same nom de guerre.”

Six months later, the man in that prison mugshot became renowned the world over when he climbed the pulpit of Mosul's Al Nuri Grand Mosque and declared himself leader of the new "caliphate" carved out of Iraq and Syria by his ISIS forces. That the military's best minds had previously wondered if he even existed was perhaps the ultimate proof of his ability to disappear into the shadows as an insurgent.

Yet until last week, when US forces finally killed Al Baghdadi at a hideout in north-east Syria, both man and myth had combined to create arguably the most brutal terrorist machine ever seen on the planet.

In Syria and Iraq, his fanatics slaughtered fellow Muslims, raped and enslaved Yazidis, and forced millions to adopt a warped interpretation of eighth-century Islam. Further afield, his propaganda about life in the so-called caliphate drew tens of thousands of foreign followers, including the "Beatles", the British militants who kidnapped and murdered western aid workers and journalists in Syria.

Meanwhile, ISIS cells and lone wolves spread terror, death and destruction on nearly every continent, from Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka to knife rampages on London Bridge.

Earlier this week the parents one of those murdered aid workers, Kayla Mueller, welcomed Al Baghdadi’s demise, although there seemed little chance of it bringing closure for their daughter's death. Mueller, who was taken hostage by ISIS and repeatedly raped by Al Baghdadi, died in a coalition airstrike in 2015 but her body has never been found.

In similar fashion, hopes that Al Baghdadi's death will draw a line under his death cult seem equally improbable. He had always known that a drone strike could kill him at any minute and had decentralised the organisation of ISIS so that it could function without him or any other commander-in-chief.

Like Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, he refused to communicate by mobile phone or any other trackable device, cutting himself off from day-to-day operations. While US officials are using material gathered at his hideout to pursue other ISIS commanders – a day after his capture, a second airstrike killed ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan Al Muhajir – they are unlikely to have uncovered an intelligence “treasure trove”.

Nonetheless, the man tipped as ISIS's next leader – Abdullah Qardash, a former Baathist army officer, who spent time with Al Baghdadi in a US-run jail in Iraq – will find him a hard act to live up to.

So what was it that made him so capable? After all, when Al Baghdadi took over ISIS's predecessor organisation in 2010, Al Qaeda in Iraq, it was in disarray, decimated by coalition operations and disenfranchised by the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, in which tribal leaders who had formerly fought the US aligned themselves with their former foes to battle the likes of Al Qaeda.

One advantage, says Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was Al Baghdadi’s background. As an Iraqi-born Islamic scholar, he had good standing in both of the key insurgent networks that fused to form ISIS – the Iraqi nationalists, drawn mainly from the security wings of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime, and the hardline jihadists. That gave him more appeal than predecessors like Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born ex-convict. Before Al Baghdadi, the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq tended to be either foreigners or “low-brow guys” such as Al Zarqawi, whereas the ISIS leader had religious training and was known locally, according to Dr Knights. He also had strong organisational skills but was content to delegate authority – one of the reasons why he lasted.

The writer is a journalist and author of The Curse of the Al-Dulaimi Hotel: And Other Half-truths from Baghdad

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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