Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Everything You Need to Know About the Leader of the Islamic State

The Iraqi-born ISIS leader, a scholar who spent four years in U.S. captivity, uses Islamic law to justify his ruthlessness, but he still enjoys soccer and fancy watches.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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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
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

UPDATE: ISIS leader al-Baghdadi thought killed in American raid, U.S. official says. This profile was originally published in 2015 and updated to reflect current events

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has only appeared in public once since he declared himself emir (leader) of the Islamic State in June 2014. But this reclusive figure has long been among the most feared terrorist leaders in the world.

Born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in the Iraqi city of Samarra, he grew up in a devout, lower-middle-class family that claimed to be able to trace its lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed.

Remembered as quiet, reserved and pious from an early age, al-Baghdadi was never outstandingly academic. He taught the Koran as a teenager to the neighborhood's children and went on to preach at Samarra’s Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque.

An undated image of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi distributed by the US state department. Credit: Associated Press

At university he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, by this time living with his first wife in Baghdad's down-at-heel Tobchi neighborhood. He taught at the local Haji Zaydan mosque (and became known for his skills in the mosque’s soccer club, where he was compared to Argentine great Lionel Messi).

He soon proved too radical for the Brotherhood and, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, helped found a militant group, Jaish Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, the Army of the Sunni People, which drew its support from the so-called Sunni Triangle area.

In February 2004 he was arrested by U.S. forces in Fallujah and spent four years in the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, where he met many former Baathists who later became part of his insurgency.

He was released when the camp shut down in 2009, and according to guards at the prison, his parting words were “I’ll see you guys in New York."

The brutal sectarian war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi'ite populations was just beginning, and al-Baghdadi’s small group was only one of a growing number of Sunni militias that would eventually unite under the auspices of Al-Qaida.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, formed Al-Qaida in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and late that year Al-Qaida in Iraq became the Islamic State in Iraq.

Al-Baghdadi rose steadily through the group's ranks to become a close aide to its head, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Abu Bakr’s religious education – in Baghdad he had earned a Ph.D. in Islamic studies – made him particularly useful for an organization trying to establish its credibility.

His cutthroat sensibilities and ruthless political instinct led to his appointment as leader in 2010, following Abu Omar’s assassination in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation in April that year. Al-Baghdadi then turned his attention to rebuilding the group’s capabilities in Iraq and further afield, creating the Nusra Front to fight against Bashar Assad in Syria.

By 2013, al-Baghdadi had decided to merge his forces into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Nusra Front and Al-Qaida protested the merger, but al-Baghdadi went ahead, leading to a split between the movements.

The group seemed unstoppable. Al-Baghdadi was able to provide religious justification for the most rigid interpretations of sharia (Islamic law) as well as the brutal executions of captives and anyone deemed an apostate.

By the end of the year, the group had taken control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and six months later seized the northern city of Mosul.

In June 2014, al-Baghdadi declared the creation of the Islamic State and appointed himself caliph. His filmed speech in Mosul’s Great Mosque provided another insight into his interests; he was seen wearing a flashy wristwatch believed to be either a Rolex, a Sekonda or an Omega Seamaster worth more than $5,000.

Rumors he had been killed or seriously wounded in an airstrike in early 2015 proved unfounded as have numerous subsequent reports of his death.

In May 2019, no longer burdened by territory and administration, al-Baghdadi outlined a new path forward for his group: Widen your reach, connect with far-flung militant groups and exhaust your enemies with a "war of attrition."

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