ISIS Warlord Baghdadi: Protégé of al-Qaeda Chief Zarqawi

ISIS Warlord

The evolution of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, can be traced to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shared similar experiences, ideology, strained relationships with Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a hatred of the Shia. Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai was born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971. His family hails from the Al-Bu’ Badri clan from Samarra, Iraq, just north of Baghdad. He attended the Islamic University’s Adhamiya campus in Baghdad, earning a doctorate degree in Islamic Studies. The Adhamiya neighborhood, best known for the Abu Hanifa Mosque and the Islamic University, supported a number of militant cells during the time U.S. military forces occupied Baghdad. A number of these cells were very active targeting U.S. forces in firefights and IED attacks, and it would have been very hard for someone to attend the University and not know what was occurring or support them. What role Abu Bakr played during this period of time remains to be revealed.

The Jihadi Kunya

Both men took jihadi kunyas that foreshadowed their futures. More often than not, jihadis take a kunya (nom de guerre) as a way of disguising their true identity. The jihadi kunya will usually be followed by a nisba, indicating their region or town of origin1. Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh was born in Zarqa, Jordan in 1966. Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh chose the kunya Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In choosing this kunya, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi was paying homage to the seventh-century Islamic warrior and his hometown. Abu Musab in Islamic history was known for his bravery, stood for the concept of self-sacrifice, and would later become the so-called "patron saint for suicide bombers."2

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose a kunya that would resound with all Muslims. Historically, Abu Bakr was the Prophet Mohammad’s closest companion and the first Caliph3. On June 29, 2014, ISIS declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "the caliph" and "leader for Muslims everywhere."4

Thus, the kunyas of each of these jihadis tells us something about their intentions and hopes. While most Arabs use the first name of their eldest son, these jihadists wanted their kunyas to communicate something more than just that they were fathers.

Early Days in Afghanistan

Once Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was released from prison in Jordan, he realized that he was under the constant watch of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate5. In 1999, Zarqawi returned to Peshawar and then entered Afghanistan to meet with al-Qaeda’s leadership in Kandahar. Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri thought that Zarqawi was a "in disagreement with certain aspects of Al-Qa’ida’s ideology and practices."6 At the insistence of Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda provided seed money and Saif al-Adel became Zarqawi’s point of contact. Zarqawi would operate a training camp near Herat, Afghanistan on the Iranian border for Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Right from the start, Zarqawi’s relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri was strained. Zawahiri thought that the Jordanian was uncontrollable and didn’t fit with al-Qaeda. Zarqawi launched a number of operations against the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan and trained a core cadre of jihadists during this time. When America invaded Afghanistan, Zarqawi fled to Iraq via Iran.

Prison: Radicalization and Connections

Both men spent time in prison. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was sentenced to fifteen years and sent to the high security prison Suwaqah, in the Jordanian desert.7 During his prison time, Zarqawi became a pupil of Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, his intellectual mentor. Time in prison was not wasted on Zarqawi, who became a prison leader and increased his religious knowledge and his physical strength. Zarqawi’s prison education prepared him for his future role. The Jordanian government provided the prison environment for Zarqawi’s development. Maqdisi stated that the Jordanian government "does not suspect that prison makes our fight stronger."8 But soon Zarqawi eclipsed his mentor and was released as part of a general amnesty upon the death of the Jordanian King Hussein.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also spent time in prison. After his capture in Iraq, he was sent to Camp Bucca, near the Kuwaiti border. Camp Bucca, named for a former New York Firefighter who lost his life on September 11, 2001, once was home to the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While not identified as an extremist and segregated from the prison population during his time at Camp Bucca, this environment added to the radicalization of Abu Bakr. He not only gained a better jihadi education in prison but, he too was released with numerous contacts of other like-minded prisoners.

ISIS today owes its establishment to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi formed the Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad (Organization/Group of Monotheism and Jihad). Zarqawi, and this terror group, first came to the world’s attention when he beheaded Nicholas Berg on May 11, 2004. Berg, the first in a series of many individuals to be kidnapped, became a media prop for this terrorist group. Instead of reading a communication they used this American as a way to ensure that their message was communicated globally by beheading him on video. Zarqawi dressed his first beheading victim in an orange jumpsuit with five men all wearing black with their faces covered in the background. The number of copycat kidnappings and beheadings skyrocketed. ISIS would replicate this same type of horrific attack taking a page from Zarqawi’s playbook when they beheaded James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines. By videotaping the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker, ISIS ensured that the world’s news media would make them appear to be the most violent terrorist group operating in Syria or Iraq. These types of videos, while graphic and horrific, aid in the recruiting and raise the level of fear associated with a terrorist group. By communicating in English, the killer of these three victims is able to reach out into a media market and ensure that inattentive Westerners are at least momentarily captivated. The level of violence shown by ISIS is nothing new. Both Zarqawi and ISIS used similar actions to strengthen themselves and control territory they captured.

In 2004, Zarqawi formed Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, better known as al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers or al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi had pledged bayat (oath of loyalty) to al-Qaeda. Zarqawi’s goals for this group were quite clear: the removal of the interim Iraqi government, the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, and the defeat of the United States. Zarqawi was able to quickly assassinate the Iraqi Governing Council President Izzadin Saleem on May 17, 2004, as his convoy waited to enter the Green Zone. But that did not lead to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in Baqubah. Abu Bakr has accomplished what Zarqawi never could. He has seized a huge portion of Iraq and announced the Islamic State. But just like Zarqawi, he also has had friction with al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

On July 9, 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri sent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a critical letter in which he softly praised and then scolded Zarqawi for some of his actions in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s number two at that time stated, "I want you to explain to me your situation in a little detail"9 and then offered a number of suggestions for his battlefield commander to follow. Zarqawi was targeting the Shia population in Iraq relentlessly leading up to this period of time. Zawahiri tried to get Zarqawi to take certain actions and stated that, "The mujahed movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve, if there is no contravention of shariah in such avoidance, and as long as there are other options."10 Zawahiri chastised Zarqawi, asking him, "Why are you killing ordinary Shia and then making it public with announcements?" Things have not gotten any better for the leader of ISIS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda today, also do not see eye to eye.

Al-Qaeda’s organization in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, asked Ayman al-Zawahiri to mediate the dispute that they were having with ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Zawahiri sent two low level envoys who were rebuffed by Abu Bakr. Zawahiri then asked Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, to mediate this dispute. Wahishi had to inform the Emir of al-Qaeda that he had failed in this endeavor. Finally, Zawahiri sent a veteran jihadi to Syria to be al-Qaeda’s chief envoy and solve this problem. Abu Khalid al-Suri (Mohamed Bahaiah), a veteran jihadi who had been with al-Qaeda since the early 1990s, was killed by a suicide bomber at his base near Aleppo. There has been much speculation that ISIS sent this final answer to Zawahiri to demonstrate who was senior to who. In the middle of February, al-Qaeda disavowed ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the first time al-Qaeda has taken this path, it stated: "ISIS is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group. . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions."11

It remains to be seen if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has learned the lessons that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi never did. Will he end up like Zarqawi, hunted from the ground and air? The United States coalition is now striking ISIS, and if competent ground forces are deployed in Iraq Baghdadi may be squeezed into a corner. Will he be able to seek sanctuary in Syria or the Iraqi territory he now controls? The lessons for the United States are many. It has been suggested that Winston Churchill once said that "Americans will always do the right thing once they have exhausted all the alternatives." When the U.S. government withdrew its military forces from Iraq in December 2011, it was clearly only a matter of time before someone stepped up and filled the void. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did just that. He is smarter than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Sooner or later he may be captured or killed, but a question remains. Has the United States learned to understand the ideology that fuels these jihadist groups, and can we develop a strategy to target not only the terrorist group and its leaders but the ideology that fuels this fire?

Foot Notes