The Believer: How an introvert became the leader of the Islamic State

The Believer: How an introvert became the leader of the Islamic State
William McCantsBrookings Institution

The council elected the new emir of the Islamic State by a vote of 9 to 2. It was then that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the age of 39, took his now-famous nom de guerre, a double homage to his faith and his native land. Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s father-in-law and, after the Prophet’s death, the first caliph; Baghdad was the capital of the grandest caliphate in early Islam, the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasids had swept to power in the eighth century using clever apocalyptic propaganda and clandestine networks to mobilize popular anger against the ruling regime in Damascus. Baghdadi was clearly hoping to repeat the performance on the same stage.

With the new emir’s blessing, not to mention gratitude, Hajji Bakr set about purging the ranks of the Islamic State of anyone who could challenge Baghdadi’s authority. Dubbed by Islamic State insiders as the “prince of shadows” and the emir’s “private minister,” Hajji Bakr settled scores and eliminated rivals through intimidation and assassination, much as Saddam had done.

The power had now shifted from the foreign fighters to the Iraqi members of the Islamic State. As American and Iraqi forces killed or captured the previous emir’s commanders, their replacements were often, like Baghdadi and Hajji Bakr, former prisoners from Camp Bucca. And many, like Bakr, were also former officers in Saddam’s military or intelligence services. Such men would prove useful in running a new authoritarian state.

Secure on the throne, Baghdadi and his éminence grise set about reviving the Islamic State’s flagging fortunes. Military setbacks had forced the group underground in 2008 and subsequent attacks like the one on Abu Umar and Masri had decimated its command structure. Baghdadi and Hajji Bakr were determined to bring the fight out in the open again and seize the territory necessary for establishing a caliphate. The growing unrest in Syria in 2011 played directly into their hands. Presented with an opportunity to inject violence into what had been a peaceful revolt, Baghdadi sent one of his Syrian operatives to set up a secret branch of the Islamic State in the country that year. The branch, later known as the Nusra Front, initially followed the Islamic State’s playbook by attacking civilians as part of a clandestine terror campaign to sow chaos. The hope was that the Islamic State would be able to capitalize on that chaos in order to make its first land grab.

Syrian President Assad lumped these attacks on civilians with the actions of those who had been protesting his regime to claim that the peaceful protestors were really nothing but terrorists. But as Nusra evolved into an insurgent organization, it became more careful about killing Sunni civilians and more dedicated to working with other Sunni rebel factions to oust Assad. This shift also reflected the guidance Nusra received from al-Qaida’s new emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had replaced bin Laden after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011. Zawahiri believed it was wiser to cultivate popular support before trying to establish an Islamic state, so he called on Nusra to collaborate with the other rebels.

Baghdadi disagreed with Zawahiri, to whom he had pledged a private oath of allegiance. As he saw things, there was already an Islamic State; it just needed to be made real by territorial conquest in Syria. Nusra’s cooperation with the other Sunni rebels was thwarting that plan.

In the spring of 2013, Baghdadi ordered his subordinates in Nusra to comply with his strategy; they refused. Furious, Baghdadi announced publicly that Nusra was part of the Islamic State, which he renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Nusra’s leader responded by repudiating Baghdadi’s authority and pledging his own direct oath of allegiance to Zawahiri. When Zawahiri accepted the oath of Nusra’s leader and ordered Baghdadi to concern himself only with Iraq, he refused. Baghdadi wanted control of Syria as well. Under Baghdadi’s leadership the Islamic State began to gobble up territory in eastern Syria, pushing out other Sunni rebel groups including Nusra. Zawahiri had no choice but to expel the Islamic State from al-Qaida, which he did in February 2014. In the ensuing melee between Nusra and the Islamic State, the latter came out on top: The State consolidated its hold on eastern Syria and siphoned off the bulk of Nusra’s foreign fighter contingent, whose members were more interested in setting up a state of their own than trying to topple Assad’s.In his new book, McCants explains how the Islamic State defied conventional jihadist thinking about how to wage wars and win recruits. Based largely on primary sources in Arabic, including secret al-Qaida and Islamic State letters few outsiders have seen, McCants reveals the group’s violent past and forecasts its dark future. Learn more about the book from St. Martin’s Press.

Soon after, reports began to circulate about how the Islamic State governed its new lands. Baghdadi had previously been able to inflict Islamic punishments only on those who were unlucky enough to be captured by the Islamic State insurgent group, because the group was not yet in control of any territory. But now Baghdadi was the head of a government that reigned over much of eastern Syria, and he could impose his will over hundreds of thousands of people, especially those in the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. Baghdadi ordered Christians to pay a protection tax or face death. Subjects accused of theft had their hands amputated; those accused of adultery were whipped or stoned to death. Although these punishments are found in Islamic scripture, most Muslim countries have abandoned them as outmoded. Even al-Qaida’s leaders had counseled their affiliates to apply the punishments leniently. But Baghdadi viewed imposing the harsh religious laws as a way of legitimizing his new state as “Islamic,” and terrifying the local population into submission. Like Saddam, he understood the political utility of brutality in the name of religion.

In the same vein, Baghdadi labeled Muslims who resisted his rule as apostates. Recalcitrant Sunni tribesmen and captured government soldiers were executed en masse and dumped into anonymous graves, a warning to anyone who would defy him.

His rule in eastern Syria secure, Baghdadi set his sights on seizing adjoining land in western Iraq.

With the death of the Islamic State’s commanders, the head of the Islamic State’s military council, Hajji Bakr, was suddenly in a position to manipulate the succession. A former officer in Saddam’s army who had served time in Camp Bucca after Baghdadi’s release, Bakr was tainted as the former servant of an impious regime and therefore not a contender for supreme leadership himself, so he set about to be the kingmaker and the power behind the throne. Ignoring bin Laden’s instructions, Hajji Bakr polled the 11 members of the Consultative Council on their preferences. But he reportedly rigged the outcome by writing a letter to each saying that all of the others were in favor of Baghdadi. Perhaps the cagey colonel believed the young Baghdadi would be more pliable than the other contenders, or that he would be less loyal to the Islamic State’s distant lords in al-Qaida, who constantly objected to the Islamic State’s brutal brand of insurgency. In making the case for Baghdadi, Hajji Bakr would undoubtedly have extolled Baghdadi’s lineage from the Prophet, his mastery of the Quran, and his managerial experience in the organization.

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