Most Influential Arab Leader in 2014: ISIS Head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

In six months, al-Baghdadi turned the Islamic State from a little-known militia in Syria to a very threatening organization that dictates international policy.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Image made from a video purporting to show ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.
Image made from a video purporting to show ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The man of the year in marketing is no doubt the 43-year-old, Iraqi-born Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He heads the Islamic brand that has become a household name worldwide. In six months, al-Baghdadi turned the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL from a little-known militia in Syria to a very threatening organization that dictates international policy, forms coalitions and is redrawing the political and physical map of the Middle East.

Al-Baghdadi does not need a huge army – his fighters number fewer than 30,000 – or sophisticated weaponry. He realized what the protest and rebel movements that generated revolutions in the Middle East realized: Social networks can replace battalions, one photograph is worth a thousand bullets, and one decapitated head sows fear and terror. 2014 did not begin with ISIS, but in the Middle East it will be remembered as the year of ISIS, and next year probably will be, too. It is thus fitting that the U.S. government raise the price on al-Baghdadi’s head – $10 million – and make it at least the $25 million it is offering for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaida, whose fortunes have declined in the terror marketplace.

But it seems that a hidden hand is directing events in the Middle East, balancing the various threats. That is because while Syria and Iraq are embroiled in a bloody war against ISIS, Iran has managed to largely shed its image as a threatening state. An interim agreement on dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, which was signed in November 2013, not only held through 2014, it also struck the foundations for continued dialogue between the Western powers and the Islamic republic. It gave Iran the status of a rational state that one can do political and economic business with and made it part, even if not officially, of the coalition of countries ready for fight ISIS, and, especially, it greatly reduced the sense of nuclear threat emanating from the country.

But negotiations with Iran, particularly the direct dialogue with the United States, generated shock waves this year among its allies such as Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, which led the Arab coalition against ISIS at the request of the United States, also warned the United States against bringing Iran into this coalition. Moreover, Saudi Arabia carried the greatest weight in the decision of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, not to reduce oil production, thus creating a price slump that gravely deepened Iran’s economic difficulties.

But Saudi Arabia flexed its muscles not only against Iran. Its fearsome showdown against its neighbor Qatar last March, which ended in a severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries, showed that Saudi Arabia is the landlord of the Arab Middle East. If up until just a few years ago, Saudi Arabia preferred to work behind the scenes diplomatically, this year it surrounded itself with a bloc of nations that might be considered an alternative Arab League, much more efficient than the official one. Among other things, it turned Egypt, which for decades held the title of leader of the Arab world, into a country dependent on it, because of the huge economic assistance flowing from the kingdom to Egypt’s coffers to fund the ongoing activities of the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Still, Saudi Arabia has so far failed to present a solution to the crisis in Syria, and with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has remained in the background, without taking advantage of its position and the weight it carries to force a turning point.

Egypt, which elected Sissi president this year, has also disappeared from the realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its main contribution, perhaps its only one, was mediating the cease fire between Israel and Hamas. But Egypt is becoming more and more bogged down in its own problems, and is hardly dealing with regional conflicts, except for the assault it carried out in Libya together with the United Arab Emirates. Almost four years after the revolution in Egypt, it is still deeply mired in economic crisis, in a war on terror in Sinai and its crowded cities, and in preparations for parliamentary elections.

By contrast, Tunisia proved this year that the revolution was able to generate democratic processes, build political coalitions, distance the religious party from government without violence and even by consensus, and build the foundations for a better future.

But on Tunisia’s border, in Libya, the country has almost completely fallen apart, the civil war is at its height, its ports are under the control of militias, radical Islamic militias control some of its cities and 2015 will probably not bring better news for this rich country.

Like Libya, Yemen and Syria will have difficulty persuading anyone that wonderful things will happen for them in 2015. Yemen was “conquered” by the Houthis, followers of a Shiite separatist faction that constitutes about 45 percent of the population; Al Qaida is operating freely in the southern part of the country, and the call to divide Yemen into north and south could be fulfilled next year.

Syria is the unending, unresolved story. The regime controls only about 40 percent of the country; the rest has been torn to shreds by dozens of militias, some of which are no longer fighting the regime, but rather are fighting rival militias. Under the circumstances in Syria and against the backdrop of the rise of ISIS, it seems that the Western countries, and not only they, have decided by default to abandon the effort to resolve conflicts in the Middle East by diplomatic means, and focus instead on an relatively easier goal – hitting ISIS. International military action does not promise the destruction of the organization or its uprooting from the Middle East, but this is at least a goal in which achievements can be presented in statistics, such as the destruction of oil installations and the killing of ISIS fighters.

The map of events in the Middle East demonstrates repeatedly the mistake in the idea that the region is a single entity and in the attempt to establish a single model for regional policy. Seeking “blocs” or “axes” or a division between “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as a means of distinguishing good from bad is understandable, but is misleading and distorted. Local nationalism, not pan-Arabism or a common religious denominator, is what dictates interests, and the coming year will not change that.

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