It all began on March 19, 2003, the day the United States decided to attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A brief war that ended in the defeat of the Iraqi President and of his Baath party. As usual, the US was more worried about the immediate aspects of the conflict rather than its possible aftermaths. The war destroyed the country's main infrastructures; there followed situations of extreme want, with the population left without water, electricity, fuel and, for the former members of the Baath party, without the minimum means of survival. The US thought that they would be welcome, after all, they had ousted a bloodthirsty autocrat; they thought that they had exported democracy.
A fertile ground
Only the Shiite population saw a possible profit to be derived from the ousting of the dictator. Although they represented the majority of Iraq's population, Iraqi Shiites had always been outcasts, persecuted by the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. After the conflict, their liking for the US was immediately invalidated by two elements: one of a practical nature (the worsening conditions after the war had nullified the people's liking for the “liberators”) and the other of a political nature (all of the main Shiite groups opposing Saddam had found refuge and assistance in Iran, where they had knitted a very tight network).
During the social upheaval caused by the conflict, the Shiites took over the scepter of power and the Sunni were marginalized. Surprisingly, this counter-discrimination found fertile ground in the choices of the person called in by the US to administer the post-war transition, Paul Bremer. His first directive, on May 16, 2003, stated that former members of the Baath party would not be allowed to hold public office. The directive number 2 of the Coalition Provisional Authority (the US-propelled international group that was supposed to lead the transition), dated May 23, 2003, dismantled the army and the Iraqi intelligence agencies.
In Saddam's days the Armed Forces, made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, counted roughly 500 thousand men in their ranks. Additionally, Baath party supporters in Ministries and other public structures were in the millions. Bremer's directives landed a few million Iraqi families on the sidewalk and – this is the dangerous part – forced many to join the ranks of the opposition while the ones with military know-how tried to find a military solution to the social conflict. These are the premises for the birth of the warfare against the new Shiite leadership in Baghdad.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi
The seed of terrorism
It is this context that sees the rise of Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaileh, also known by his battle name of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, from Zarqa, Jordan, already known to the local prisons as a common criminal turned extremist while sojourning up the river. Once released, around the years 1989-1992, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, there, he commanded his own fighting group called “Jund al Sham” (The army of Syria). Upon his return to Jordan, Zarqawi actively supported subversive activities against the Hashemite reign. In 1994, he was arrested for plotting against King Hussein (weapons and explosives were found in his house). Zarqawi was released five years later thanks to the amnesty that followed the rise to the throne of King Abdullah II. Soon after his release, Zarqawi was accused again of carrying out subversive activity against the Jordanian reign but, by then, he had fled to Afghanistan. Zarqawi remained in Afghanistan until, after 9/11, the US decided to wage war against the Taliban.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi moved to Iraq after the second Gulf War and was able to use the Sunni resentment against the Shiites in Baghdad to fuel terrorist activities since April 2003, just a month after the US invasion took place. During the war, Zarqawi teamed up first with a Kurd separatist militia called “Ansar al Islam” (The partisans of Islam), then formed his own group. In 2004, the US Department of State placed a bounty on Zarqawi's head worth 10 million dollars.
Around that same time, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, aka Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was captured and detained in the Camp Bucca prison by the US authorities. The US arrested al Baghdadi because of his connections to Al Qaeda. Inside the prison of Bucca, however, al Baghdadi made friends with other terrorists, whom he will later recruit to found the ISIS. Additionally, al Baghdadi got to know a number of Baathist officials who would later support him during his military campaign.
In virtue of his Afghan experience, Abu Musab al Zarqawi led his war with the blessing of Ayman al Zawahiri and of Al Qaeda. He did so by lending an umbrella organization to a number of terrorist factions, the “Jama'at al Tawhid wal Jihad” (Association for the unity and Jihad), later renamed “Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn” (Organization of the Jihad of al Qaeda in the country of the two rivers, i.e. Mesopotamia). The US had since raised the bounty on Zarqawi's head to 25 million dollars, as much as Osama bin Laden and his mentor Ayman al Zawahiri, and added the acronym AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) to the terror list.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi
Zarqawi's terrorist experience ended on June 7, 2006, when a US airplane targeted his refuge in Baquba, north of Baghdad. Together with him died his fourth wife and some of his lieutenants. The killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi would not, however, remove the founding element of the Jihadist rebellion: the resentment of the Sunni, who were by then united under a Salafite flag against the Shiite administration in Baghdad. This is why in 2006 the ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) was born. Only later, in April 2013, will the final “S” be added; the “S” that stands for Syria or “Sham”: Damascus.
The ISI was initially headed by Abu Omar al Baghdadi, aka Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al Zawi. His vice was an Egyptian national, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who also went by a pseudonym, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. The ISI was not made up of Zarqawi's group alone, it had absorbed several smaller factions, such as the “Council of the Shura of the Mujaheddin” and the “Jund al Sahaba” (The army of the companions of the Prophet). Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became a member of the ISI in virtue of his militancy in the Coordination Committee of the Council of the Shura of the Mujaheddin and thanks to the people he had met in Camp Bucca. Al Baghdadi's strengths were an in-depth knowledge of the Islamic doctrine, which he had studied in a doctorate at the Islamic University of Baghdad, and a strong background in Jihadist theory, which was the fruit of his mingling with the Muslim Brothers and of his reading the works of the “bad teachers” of the holy war: Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, Sayyid Qubt, Abu Mohammed al Mufti al Aali.
Not much is known about Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's personal life. He has two wives, Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Dulaimi and Israa Rajab Mahal Al-Qaisi. The former, a direct cousin of al Baghdadi's, gave him 5 children, the latter only one. The present location of al Baghdadi's family is not known, although it is possible that they followed him to Raqqa, the capital of the Caliphate of Syria and the ancient capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Al Baghdadi, now self-proclaimed Caliph, also has three brothers: Jomaa, his bodyguard and counsellor, Shamsi, who is locked up in an Iraqi prison and Ahmad, who has a long history of financial fraud and has recently been released from one. The father of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai was an Imam in a Samarra Mosque and that is probably where the theological indoctrination of his son began.
On April 18, 2010, a joint US-Iraqi operation in the region of Anbar put an end to the lives and times of the leaders of the ISI, Abu Omar and Abu Ayyub. It is then that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who went by the name of Abu Dua, took over. Not everyone was agreeable with his promotion, but then again, he did descend from the tribe of Quraish, just like the Prophet.
A step up in class
Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had allegedly spent some time together on the Afghan front, in the region of Herat; their common traits are a series of homicides, beheadings and killings of hostages that have kept the international media very busy. Apart from those, there are no similarities between the two.
Zarqawi fought against the US occupation and, on a second level, against the Shiites. He had no ambitions for the creation of an Islamic State. Zarqawi saw himself as an affiliate of al Qaeda in virtue of his past and mingled with the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans. Al Baghdadi's ambition, on the other hand, goes well beyond that of his predecessor. He aims to lead the “Umma”, the entire world's Muslim community. Also, he wants to replace al Qaeda at the helm of international terrorism, as stated by Osama bin Laden in his last written words. It is for this reason that the ISIS uses an unusual vigor against its enemies within the Islamic world, such as the Salafite groups in Syria.
When compared to other terrorist groups, ISIS is much bigger and more dangerous. It started off with 5000 men and now has roughly 30-40 thousand of them. Al Baghdadi's military venture is mantled with religious overtones more-so than Zarqawi's. The latter had no theological background, if not that which he had obtained from the sermons of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri. The goal of the ISIS is the founding of a Caliphate and they intend to found it on their own ideological background.
The brutality, the refusal to take prisoners, the unscrupulous use of the media are all parts of a well-planned strategy that was started by al Zarqawi and brought to new heights by al Baghdadi. The brutality and ferociousness serve to scare the enemy and make the population flee (thus easing the administration of the “conquered” territories) and to render the war a one-way street for all those that take part in it. You win or you die; in no case will the enemy forgive you. This has emerged during the re-conquest of Tikrit on the part of the Iraqi army. ISIS prisoners were given the same treatment as that which they had dispensed on the army.
The recent story of the ISIS and of al Baghdadi is no secret: he sends two lieutenants to Syria to found Jabhat al Nusra; the military defeats; the dissociation from al Qaeda and the disagreement with al Zawahiri. It is difficult to foresee a conclusion to al Baghdadi's military adventure. His predecessors have always been defeated. Al Baghdadi himself came close to being killed on November 8, 2014, while in Iraq. He was wounded but managed nonetheless to escape to Syria. He lives below the radar ever since; he doesn't show himself in public and his movements are secreted. The days of the sermons in the Musol Mosque are now long gone.