The world's most wanted man and his new Islamic state
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may call himself the successor to Mohammed, but his new state is surrounded by enemies
For a generation, al-Qa'ida has been the undisputed leader of global jihad. Even as its iconic founder was killed and its leaders forced on the run by drone strikes, it metastasised through powerful affiliates and franchises from Algeria, to Yemen, to Iraq. But one of the hydra's heads is now taking on a life of its own.
The pretenders to al-Qa'ida's throne, blitzing through Iraq, have been through more name changes than Prince. Their origins lie in a small Jordanian-led extremist group founded in 1999, which re-branded as al-Qa'ida in Iraq in 2004 and again as the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Although Americans and Iraqis largely defeated the group by 2008, they quickly picked themselves up off the floor.
The shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became their leader in 2010. As is common for such figures, a mythology has built up around his past. What we know is that he was born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in the early '70s and that he studied at the University of Baghdad.
At the time of the US invasion, he was an undistinguished cleric in his early thirties. He reportedly founded his own armed group, facilitated the flow of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, and later governed the Iraqi town of Rawa near the border. He imposed a vicious form of sharia that would become the hallmark of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Helped along by the prodigious death rate of his less vigilant peers, he quickly rose through the ranks of al-Qa'ida in Iraq's governing committees.
Baghdadi was detained as an insurgent by American forces from 2005 to 2009. It might seem surprising that the US released the man who would go on to lead the world's most ambitious terrorist group. But recall that the US was awash with prisoners at that time. It held more than 25,000 Iraqis in 2007, and only a tenth of those would ever stand trial. Baghdadi was a needle in a rapidly growing haystack. Indeed, it was only two years later, in 2011, that the US designated him a terrorist.
Throughout this period, Baghdadi assiduously avoided any public declaration of allegiance to al-Qa'ida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
When US troops were effectively kicked out by Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, that year, Baghdadi oversaw a steadily intensifying campaign of suicide bombings against mostly Shia targets.
Last year, Baghdadi decided to throw his group into the Syrian fray. He changed his group's name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and focused his efforts on destroying or absorbing other Syrian rebels, raising kidnap ransoms, and seizing oilfields, rather than targeting Assad.
Baghdadi audaciously defied Zawahiri's increasingly strident demands to stay out of Syria and stick to Iraq, telling his ostensible superior that he had chosen "the command of my Lord over the command in the letter that contradicts it".
Finally, having swept through western Iraq in the first four months of this year and punched successfully into northern Iraq in June, the group decided the time was ripe for their most dramatic step yet.
They announced the establishment of a caliphate: a universal Islamic state led by a would-be successor (caliph) to Mohammed, in this case Baghdadi himself. This was accompanied by yet another name change, to the Islamic State (IS).
For the enigmatic Baghdadi to have appointed himself as leader of the world's Muslims and inheritor of al-Qa'ida's legacy is an act of extraordinary ambition. While Bin Laden was raising money for the Afghan Mujahideen, Baghdadi was at primary school. Bin Laden electrified his followers with quietly intense rhetoric. Baghdadi has never publicly released a video.
Like many caliphs before him, his authority is based on his shrewd military command, rather than the purity or novelty of a revolutionary message.
His challenge to al-Qa'ida is, however, devastating. Zawahiri expelled IS from al-Qa'ida in February for rebelling against his authority. Now Baghdadi has thrown the gauntlet back at Zawahiri's feet. And why not?
Zawahiri is a bespectacled and bookish theorist of jihad, hunkering down in Pakistan. Baghdadi, the would-be Caliph Ibrahim – he gets a new name with the office – is a proven commander who has shattered the Iraqi army.
Neither Zawahiri nor his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, ever controlled territory. Baghdadi's forces hold land twice the size of Israel.
On top of all of this, IS is possibly the wealthiest jihadist group in history, reportedly holding up to $1bn and has drawn recruits from all over the world.
No one should therefore be complacent about the threat posed by IS and its jihadist proto-state. But it is crucial to put this in the proper context.
The caliphate may be a millennium-old institution, but the last one was snuffed out a century ago, when the secular republic of Turkey superseded the Ottoman Empire. IS's aims are delusional. It wants to resurrect an Islamic state across the entire Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that stretches all the way from the Red Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, and perhaps farther still into Africa and Asia.
Giving undue credence to these wild ambitions would be to play right into IS's masterful propaganda. IS is composed of mass-murdering Islamist fascists who have got lucky, exploiting chaos in Syria and a feckless government in Baghdad. There are good reasons to think that their so-far paltry caliphate will run out of steam before it gets anywhere close to fulfilling its ambitions.
For a start, IS has hostile forces in every direction. It will face resistance from other Syrian rebels in the west (including al-Qa'ida), the hostility of newly emboldened Kurds in the north and, eventually, a counter-offensive from government forces to the south. Even if the Iraqi government collapses – and we are a long way from that – then Iraq's Shia majority will not accept a permanent jihadist state on their northern flank, let alone allow them to stroll into Baghdad.
Iraq's neighbours will also fight back. Ankara does not look kindly on the fact that IS has kidnapped 80 Turkish citizens, including diplomats, in Iraq. Iran is aghast at the rise of a radical Sunni force on its western border. The US has sent several hundred of its own special forces, and would almost certainly conduct its own airstrikes were Baghdad to be threatened.
The biggest challenge of all is closer to home. The more we talk about IS as jihadist masterminds, the more we forget that their success has depended on coalition building. They have relied on partnerships with other Sunni militants.
But coalitions such as this can fall apart just as quickly as they were forged.
IS faces balancing acts. Some argue that Baghdadi has learnt from past mistakes. His fighters have governed some newly occupied cities with a lighter touch, including delivery of public services – a consumer protection office, and pothole-filling – rather than just wanton beheadings. Ultimately, however, IS's leaders are megalomaniac ideologues. This charade of good governance will fall away.
Sooner or later, they will move towards draconian sharia law, prompting the sort of backlash they faced last year in Syria.
IS's rise presents a serious challenge to al-Qa'ida, to the established states of the Middle East, and to the West. It may take years to dislodge these jihadists from their strongholds in Iraq and Syria and decades after that to rebuild functioning states. But can IS defend, administer and grow a caliphate while encircled by adversaries?
These are imperial fantasies. Baghdadi's ego is writing cheques that his group can't cash. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute