Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, is dead, according to the White House. President Donald Trump announced Baghdadi’s death earlier today, saying “U.S. Special Operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid into Northwestern Syria to accomplish this mission.” The Islamic State leader blew himself by igniting his suicide vest, “while a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions” were also killed, Trump added.
Baghdadi was reportedly killed in Barisha, a somewhat surprising choice of hiding spot. Barisha is in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, not far from the Turkish border. Baghdadi’s jihadists rivals in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other groups control much of Idlib. HTS and its predecessor groups have been central to rivalry between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Indeed, HTS regularly claims operations targeting Islamic State cells throughout Idlib province.
Baghdadi’s jihadist career began years before the rise of his self-declared caliphate.
He cofounded an insurgency group early on in the Iraq War and joined the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), a front group established by al-Qaeda in Iraq in early 2006. Later that same year, the MSC was relaunched as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and its leader was named as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a murky figure the U.S. military claimed didn’t really exist. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was dubbed the “Emir of the Faithful,” a title usually reserved for Muslim caliphs. But the ISI didn’t market the first Baghdadi as a true caliph. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would later leverage the same title in his quest to dominate.
Baghdadi rose to the top spot in the Islamic State of Iraq’s (ISI) leadership after its two top men, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al-Masri), were killed in April 2010. Baghdadi was a largely unknown figure outside of the ISI when he assumed control of the group.
By that time, the ISI’s first state-building effort in Iraq had been rolled back by American, Iraqi and allied forces. But it wasn’t finished. While the original 2003 Iraq War created up a new state-building opportunity for the jihadists, the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 helped reinvigorate it. Other factors, such as the war in Syria, allowed Baghdadi’s men to expand their footprint as well.
Baghdadi would eventually come to revile al-Qaeda in public. But that was not always the case. For example, he offered a glowing eulogy for Osama bin Laden after the al-Qaeda founder was killed in a May 2011 raid. Baghdadi claimed that the “martyrdom of our sheikh” (bin Laden), would only lead to more unity and firmness among his fellow mujahideen.
“I say to our brothers in the Al-Qaeda organization, with the mujahid Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, and his brothers in the leadership of the organization…May Allah double your rewards and confer upon you the utmost solace for this tragedy,” Baghdadi said. “You have in the Islamic State of Iraq a group of loyal men pursuing the endeavor of truth, they shall never forgive, nor resign,” he said when addressing al-Qaeda days after bin Laden’s death.
Later, Baghdadi and his men wouldn’t be so deferential to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.
The ISI helped spawn Al-Nusrah Front, which was originally the group’s arm in Syria. Consistent with al-Qaeda’s instructions, Al-Nusrah did not publicly announce its affiliation. By early 2013, Al-Nusrah had grown into a force of its own. Baghdadi attempted to reassert his authority of over the growing insurgency organization. But his one-time lieutenant, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, rejected Baghdadi’s orders and appealed directly to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership for assistance. Although Zawahiri chastised Julani for revealing his al-Qaeda allegiance, he ruled in Al-Nusrah’s favor, declaring that it should remain an independent al-Qaeda branch in the Levant.
Baghdadi notoriously defied Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ruling and his group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as of early 2013, extended its state-building efforts into eastern and northern Syria.
By the middle of 2014, the jihadists’ campaign led to the fall of much of western and northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
On June 29, 2014, the group’s chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, declared that Baghdadi fulfilled all of the requirements to be considered a caliph. Baghdadi was rechristened as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the leader of the first supposed caliphate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Baghdadi accepted the honorific “Emir of the Faithful” in early July 2014, during a speech from the pulpit at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul.
As “Caliph Ibrahim,” Baghdadi demanded the allegiance of not only all other jihadists, but indeed all Muslims. He and his men repeated this demand on more than one occasion.
On Nov. 10, 2014, groups of mostly unknown men in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen swore allegiance to the supposed caliph. Three days later, on Nov. 13, Baghdadi publicly accepted their oaths, proclaiming “the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands.” Baghdadi accepted “the bayat [oath of allegiance] from those who gave us bayat in those lands,” and declared “the nullification of the groups therein.”
And with that, Baghdadi and his loyalists extended their war on al-Qaeda and its regional branches around the globe.
In the coming months and years, the Islamic State would grow into a worldwide organization, with “provinces” everywhere from West Africa to Southeast Asia declaring their fealty to Baghdadi. Only a few of these “provinces” controlled any real ground. And al-Qaeda retained its own global network of branches, remaining stronger than the so-called caliphate in countries such as Somalia and Yemen, while also being arguably deeper in other areas as well.
Under Baghdadi’s leadership, the Islamic State not only expanded its capacity for guerrilla warfare outside of Iraq and Syria, but also plotted terrorist attacks around the globe. Some of these attacks, such as the November 2015 assault on Paris and the March 2016 Brussels bombings, deliberately targeted civilians living in countries that belonged to the anti-Islamic State coalition. Building on the groundwork laid by al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State encouraged individual terrorists in the West to lash out in its name. Baghdadi’s external operations arm also systematically directed small-scale operations throughout the West, sometimes coaching individuals via encrypted messaging applications.
Earlier this year, the Islamic State coordinated a global propaganda campaign, dubbed “And the Best Outcome is for the Pious,” in which jihadists from more than one dozen countries renewed their fealty to Baghdadi. The footage featured men in all of the following countries or regions renewing their oaths of allegiance to Baghdadi: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, the Caucasus, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Khorasan, Libya, Mozambique, Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, West Africa, and Yemen. Although the videos were undoubtedly intended to buttress fighter morale, given the loss of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, the productions underscored the worldwide nature of Baghdadi’s network.
The Islamic State has yet to name Baghdadi’s replacement or confirm his death.