ISIL's leader Baghdadi: from quiet student to self-appointed Caliph

Baghdad: The only time the polite, bespectacled student shone was on the football field, while playing for the team from the local mosque.

"He was the Messi of our team," said Abu Ali, a fellow player and worshipper at the mosque, making comparison with Lionel Messi, the Argentine striker. "He was our best player."

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the impressive striker, is now one of the world's most wanted jihadist leaders. Fanatics from Baghdadi's Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have carved a swathe through the Middle East.

Born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai to a family of preachers Baghdadi grew up in Samarra, a town north of Baghdad in the Sunni heartland. He spent his formative years studying in Baghdad for undergraduate and masters degrees, and a PhD at the Islamic University.

For more than a decade, until 2004, he lived in a room attached to a small local mosque in Tobchi, a poor neighbourhood of Sunni and Shia Muslim residents on the western fringes of Baghdad.

Abu Ali, who did not want his full name used, said: "When Ibrahim al-Badri arrived in Tobchi he was 18 years old. He was a quiet person, and very polite.


"He wasn't a preacher as people say," added Mr Ali. "The mosque here had its own imam. When he was away, students would take his place. Baghdadi would sometimes lead the prayers but not give sermons.

Mr Ali said that he had seen the mugshot, posted online by the United States government with a reward of $US10 million for his capture: "I recognised him in the picture, except that when I knew him he wore glasses. He was very short-sighted."

The jihadist-to-be had been a "conservative Salafi" practitioner of Islam, his former neighbour said. "I remember a wedding in the area. Men and women were dancing and jumping happily in the same room. He was walking past on the street and shouted, 'How can men and women be dancing together like this? It's irreligious'. He stopped the dance."

When Baghdadi finished his PhD in sharia in the early 2000s he married and, less than a year later, his wife gave birth to their first child, a boy who is now approximately 11 years old.

As the war drums rumbled against then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and later, when the allies invaded in 2003, Baghdadi continued to live the life of a family man.

"He didn't show any hostility to the Americans," said Abu Ali.

Ahmed al-Dabash, the leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq, who fought against the allied invasion in 2003 and whose group is now fighting alongside Baghdadi's ISIL, said the younger Baghdadi did not show much potential.

"I was with Baghdadi at the Islamic University," said Dabash. "We studied the same course, but he wasn't a friend. He was quiet, and retiring. He spent time alone.

"I used to know all the leaders [of the insurgency] personally. Zarqawi [the ex-leader of al-Qaeda] was closer than a brother to me," he said. "But I didn't know Baghdadi. He was insignificant ... No one really noticed him."

US intelligence reports record that by 2005 Baghdadi had moved to the dusty town of Qaim in the Sunni Iraqi province of Anbar. Using the pseudonym of Abu Duaa, he was accused of being connected to the torture and the "public execution" of local civilians.

But according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security strategist who has met Baghdadi in person, it was a subsequent prison stint in an American jail which cemented Baghdadi's extremism.

Baghdadi was thrown into the sprawling American-run Camp Bucca in late 2005. He cut such an innocuous figure that the Americans failed to identify him as a particularly dangerous individual and in 2009, when the prison closed down, Baghdadi was released.

"He was a bad dude but he wasn't the worst of the worst," Colonel Kenneth King, then Camp Bucca's commanding officer, told the news website The Daily Beast.

Inside the prison, Baghdadi is believed to have met with and been radicalised by jihadists from al-Qaeda. After Baghdadi's release, he reaffirmed his membership to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The group's leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by a US air strike in 2006. In 2010, another US air raid killed his successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

It is here, that for the first time, the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became known. In a dramatic ascent, the quiet scholar suddenly emerged as the man elected to lead al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq.

"It's still a mystery why they chose specifically Baghdadi to lead. There were many others who had been in the organisation before him," said Mr Hashimi. "He was elected by a Shura council [a religious consultative assembly], in Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, when nine out of 11 people voted in his favour."

Baghdadi's next break, which cemented his infamy, was his decision to dispatch his men to fight in the civil war in Syria. After capturing most of the country's oilfields, the jihadist established a lucrative source of revenue.

The group that became ISIL grew in size and influence, breaking away from al-Qaeda after Baghdadi ignored leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's orders to keep his organisation in Iraq.

Returning some of his men to Iraq, he seized Mosul, Iraq's second city in the north of the country, and then advanced towards Baghdad, sending the Iraqi army fleeing.

The geeky former student's ambitions did not stop there. Last week Baghdadi issued a "joyous" statement announcing the achievement of his ambition to build an "Islamic State". Now, he has issued statements demanding, first the toppling of Baghdad, and then the inclusion of the Gulf and Jordan in his caliphate.

Within three years, the former football fan has transformed a fringe group into the best-equipped and best-funded militia of modern times. And behind the calculating silence, there is in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a character of unending ambition, who will never again be underestimated.

Telegraph, London