This is a really great article.
My Brookings colleague William McCants has written a lengthy profile of the Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, published by the Brookings Essay. It's one of the more informative things I've read on the subject. Will has also written a new book on the Islamic State, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamc State, which is due out in a few weeks.
I'll have thoughts on the book after I've read it. In the meantime, the essay is highly recommended.
IBRAHIM AWWAD IBRAHIM AL-BADRI was born in 1971 in Samarra, an ancient Iraqi city on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. The son of a pious man who taught Quranic recitation in a local mosque, Ibrahim himself was withdrawn, taciturn, and, when he spoke, barely audible. Neighbors who knew him as a teenager remember him as shy and retiring. Even when people crashed into him during friendly soccer matches, his favorite sport, he remained stoic. But photos of him from those years capture another quality: a glowering intensity in the dark eyes beneath his thick, furrowed brow.
Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.
Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam.
But the bare facts of Baghdadi’s biography show an unusually capable man. He helped found an insurgent group, finished a Ph.D. while managing the religious affairs of the Islamic State, and has been able to prevail amid the State’s cutthroat politics because of his skill at coalition building and his ability to intimidate his rivals. The consolidation of the Islamic State’s territorial gains in Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq came after the death of his “prince of shadows.” Although the New York Times recently reported that he himself is making arrangements for a succession in the event of his demise by devolving many of his military powers to subordinates, his blend of religious scholarship and political cunning won’t be easily replaced. None of his possible successors combine his Prophetic lineage, religious knowledge, and skill at winning powerful friends and quieting dissent.
Throughout his life, Baghdadi has chosen the path of religious extremism, and in ways as small as denouncing dancers at a wedding and as large as mass executions he has always attempted to impose his views on others. He could have been a university professor, persuading young minds with argument. But the believer became the commander of the believers, seeking to impose his savagely bleak religious vision on the entire world. “The march of the mujahidin will continue until they reach Rome,” he proclaimed last year. If Baghdadi’s life is a cautionary tale, it is about the danger of creating the chaos that allows men like him to flourish.