Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the cleric who dreamt of a medieval caliphate

ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Baghdadi, Taliban
The ISIS leader was taken down by the US Special Forces during an air raid in his hideout in northwest Syria on Saturday night. Photo: PTI

On July 4, 2014, Muslims gathered at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Iraq’s Mosul for their Friday prayers saw an unfamiliar man ambling up the stairs of its minbar (pulpit). His arrival at the mosque, famous for its hunchback minaret, created a nervous excitement among devotees. The man himself added more tension to the unfolding drama by prolonging the suspense through his measured steps taken almost in slow motion.

The cynosure of all eyes wore a black robe and turban, reminding the Muslims of an important sermon in the history of Islam. As he slowly made his way to the minbar, he paused at every step and scanned the audience through his glasses mounted on a metal frame. And when he reached the top, in what seemed to be an anti-climax, he pulled out a wooden stick from his pocket and started cleaning his teeth.

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Then he started speaking in his sing-song voice. “Allah has bestowed upon them (the Mujahidin) the grace of victory and conquest and enabled them, after many years of jihad, patience and fighting the enemies of Allah, and granted them success and empowered them to achieve their goal…Therefore, they hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam…I was placed as your caretaker, and I am not better than you.”

The brief sermon by a middle-aged man announced to the world that a nondescript cleric who was released from jail by the US authorities a few years ago had arrived as the new “Rashidun” leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. In a few hours, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim” was to become a dreaded name across the world.

From Camp Bucca to al-Raqqa

At his peak, al-Baghdadi, who was reportedly killed in a US strike on Saturday (October 26), commanded a large geographic swathe covering Iraq and Syria; several jihadist organisations loyal to him occupied territories in several countries including far away Nigeria where the Boko Haram unleashed terror in his name, and thousands of barrels of crude oil traded by his men brought in millions of dollars that he, ironically, pumped into his fight with the US forces in Iraq and their regional allies.

Hundreds of trained fighters, retired, cashiered army men, thousands of Muslims poured into his caliphate — creatively titled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — to defend a kingdom styled on medieval ideas, punishments and rules. For almost three years, from the rise of the ISIS in the summer of 2013 to its decimation in 2017, al-Baghdadi remained the supreme source of threat to the global peace.

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Like many others, al-Baghdadi found himself at the right place at the right time through quirks of fate. Till a few years before his sudden, meteoric rise, he was a non-descript cleric who could easily melt in the crowd without anybody noticing him. But, after his incarceration by the US military in the dreaded Camp Bucca of Iraq—called the University of Jihadists by many—he emerged as a hard-boiled resurgent, ready to go to any length in the name of Islam.

His first notable appointment in his alma mater — the Islamic State of Iraq, a franchise of al-Qaeda — was as the head cleric for a small region. Later, he was anointed the Sharia expert for the entire organisation, a position that made him number three in the hierarchy. A few years later, when both the number one and number two in the terror outfit were killed in an air raid by US forces, al-Baghdadi became its head with the support of former Baathists in the group.

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To his credit, al-Baghdadi, who was born in 1971 in Iraq, had foreseen the role for himself once he joined the radical jihadi group. He had named himself after the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and claimed his al-Badri tribe was a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad’s clan, the Quryash. He acted, spoke and sermonised like a man whose self-ordained fate was to one day lead the Ummah and establish the rule of Sharia.

Under his command, the group expanded into Syria with the help of the local al-Nusra front— the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda which he later gobbled up — and gradually swept through large parts of Iraq and Syria, creating a small empire with its capital at al-Raqqah, a city that was to later turn into a model of atavistic, hellish prison which his blind followers construed as Islamic paradise.

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In his short reign as the caliph, al-Baghdadi earned global notoriety for justifying barbaric crucifixions, beheadings, rape and slavery in the name of Sharia. He presided over a murderous cabal that found novel ways of killing — setting people aflame in a cage, beheading them live on camera — and unleashing terror. He prescribed jihad against kafirs by any means possible — poisoning wells, burning crops — and brutal punishment for ‘renegades’, Shias and Kurds.

End of Days

The ISIS dreams of pushing its boundaries and establishing a global empire through incessant jihad. Its ultimate fantasy is of engaging the “armies of the cross” in an end-of-days battle near Dabiq, a small agrarian town in Syrian. The ISIS propaganda machinery claims the “armies of the cross” led by anti-Christ ‘Dajjal’ would almost annihilate the Islamic forces but Jesus would descend on the earth to lead the armies of the caliphate to victory. At the end of this Armageddon, ISIS propagandists believe, Allah would lead the handful of survivors and the reign of Sharia would be established.

Soon after proclaiming a caliphate, ISIS Twitter handles and magazines (one of them titled Dabiq) started exhorting Muslims from across the world to declare baya’a (allegiance) to al-Baghdadi and join the state based on Sharia laws. In the first flush of excitement, hundreds of young men left their homes in Europe — Germany, Belgium and France were the biggest catchment areas — to pour illegally into Syria and Iraq.

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Fortunately, most of the Muslim world ignored al-Baghdadi’s claims of being their leader, treating him with suspicion and his caliphate as a perversion of Islam. His march was slowed down further by the al-Nusra front, al-Qaeda, which refused to recognise the caliphate, and the Kurdish militia in Iraq that repulsed his advances with the help of their western allies. By 2018, the ISIS was reduced to a rump, confined just to small patches in the deserts of Syria.

The reported death of the caliph, per se, isn’t a great achievement. For, the ISIS had been contained and destroyed several months ago. The series of military setbacks, the failure to expand and defeat the “armies of the cross” had withered his legitimacy and appeal. But, as an idea and an ideology, al-Baghdadi still remains a global threat. The very radical faith, the Salafist dream of establishing the rule of Sharia through the barrel of Kalashnikovs will continue to inspire deranged, fanatical persons till it is defeated by the counter-narrative of peace and global brotherhood.

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