By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The big news now is some shadowy figure named Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has announced himself ‘Caliph‘. In point of fact he has the imprimatur of a “Shura council.” An ISIS manifesto released on tape was transcribed by AFP as saying ”
The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims…The jihadist cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims…has accepted this allegiance, and has thus become the leader for Muslims everywhere…the dream in all the Muslims’ hearts” and “the hope of all jihadists.”
So let’s say it isn’t exactly the same as Napoleon crowning himself king. But this whole issue leaves many questions unresolved.
How did a man who up until a few years ago was totally unknown become so important. Al-Jazeera gives us a look inside the history of this mystery figure. He was born in 1971 in Samarra; a religious center of Shi’ism. He got a doctorate in Islamic theology from the University of Baghdad; a premier institution that Saddam had invested greatly in. And then it was the crucible of the US invasion that made him into something greater. Picked up apparently and imprisoned, but his name was not important enough to appear on embassy cables or other coorespondence apparently. He joined a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and fought in the wars against the US in 2006-2009.
According to the same report in or about 2013 he took over the Nusra front in Syria and combined it with his Iraqi Islamists. He then took to the airwaves denouncing Al Qaeda as a broken spear of Jihad. “”al-Qaeda is no longer the base of jihad… its leadership has become a hammer to break the project of the Islamic state… al-Qaeda’s leaders have deviated from the correct paths.” Some call him a Jihadist leader for the 21st century; referencing the slick videos and PR of this movement. Others connect him to the dialectic of Jihad. “A common theme among European members of ISIL is that Baghdadi represents a continuation of the ideals expounded by Bin Laden and that Zawahiri has failed to continue that line,” according to the report referenced above.
But really; when we look at this Mr. Baghdadi; don’t we see a mechanic…more a wandering ronin than a real Bin Laden style “sheikh”.
Let’s take a closer look. A US commander at Camp Bucca in Iraq Col. Kenneth King recalls Baghdadi telling him “I‘ll see you in New York.” King felt it was a mistake he was released in 2009. This is confirmed in a Wikileaks cable; namely that they were thought to be low value detainees.
Even in 2012 when his name first surfaces in news reports as a “local al qaeda” leader, he is seen as fearsome; ordering his followers to “break the walls” which leads to the deaths of 115 in terror attacks against the Shia-led government in Iraq.
But can a man who looks more like a car mechanic than a leader of a caliphate make much of an impact? Will this man be fleeting or the next major force in the region?