Al-Baghdadi, Self-Proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State (Part 2)

By Farhang Jahanpour

Part 1 of this series

A shorter version of this article has been published by IPS

When Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai adopted the name of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quraishi and revealed himself to the world as the Amir al-Mu’minin (the Commander of the Faithful) Caliph Ibrahim of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the whole world had to sit up and take notice of him.

The choice of the long title that he has chosen for himself is most interesting and symbolic. The title Abu-Bakr clearly refers to the first caliph after Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first of the four “Orthodox Caliphs”.

The term Husseini presumably refers to Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson and Imam Ali’s son, who was martyred in Karbala on 13 October 680. His martyrdom is seen as a turning point in the history of Islam and is mourned in elaborate mourning ceremonies by the Shi’ites throughout the world on the 10th of Muharram each year, which is accompanied with many processions and self-flagellation.

Both Sunnis and Shi’is regard Imam Hussein as a great martyr, and as someone who gave up his life in order to defend Islam and to stand up against tyranny.

Finally, al-Quraishi refers to Quraish, the tribe to which the Prophet of Islam belonged.

Therefore, his chosen title is full of Islamic symbolism.

According to an alleged biography posted on jihadi Internet forums, al-Baghdadi is a direct descendant of the Prophet, but curiously enough his ancestors come from the Shi’a line of the Imams who descended from the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah.

According to this alleged biography, al-Baghdadi derives his lineage directly from nine Shi’a Imams, “Ali Al-Hadi, Muhammad al-Jawad, Ali al-Rida, Musa al-Kazim, Ja’far al-Sadiq, Muhammad al-Baqir, Ali Zayn al-Abidin, Husayn Bin-Ali, Ali Bin Abi-Talib, right up to the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah and ending in Prophet Muhammad himself.”

Despite his great hostility towards the Shi’is, is this genealogy a way of portraying himself as the true son of the descendants of the Prophet, thus appealing to both Shi’is and Sunnis?

According to the same biography, al-Baghdadi was born near Samarra, in Iraq, in 1971. It is alleged that he received BA, MA and PhD degrees in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. It is also suggested that he was a cleric at the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque in Samarra at around the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. (1)

According to a senior Afghan security official, al-Baghdadi went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he received his early jihadi training. He lived with the Jordanian militant fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqarwi in Kabul from 1996-2000. (2)

It is likely that al-Baghdadi fled Afghanistan with leading Taliban fighters after the US invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi and other militants, perhaps including al-Baghdadi, formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In September 2005, Zarqawi declared an all-out war on the Shi’is in Iraq, after the Iraqi and American offensive on insurgents in the Sunni town of Tal Afar. Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by US forces on June 7, 2006.

According to US Department of Defense records, al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca from February until December 2004, but some sources claim that he was interned from 2005-2009.

In any case, his history of militancy in both Afghanistan and Iraq and fighting against American forces goes back a long way. He was battle-hardened in the jihad against U.S. forces, and being detained by US forces further strengthened his ambitions and credentials as a militant jihadi fighter.

In the wake of the “Arab Spring” and anti-government protests in Syria, some Western governments, Saudi Arabia and Turkey decided to topple the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by training and funding Syrian insurgents. The upheaval in Syria provided al-Baghdadi with an opportunity to engage in jihad and to widen the circle of his followers, until he suddenly emerged at the head of thousands of jihadi fighters again attacking Iraq from Syria.

His forces conquered vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, and he set up his so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or greater Syria), ISIS.

On the first Friday in the Muslim month of fasting or Ramadan on 4th July 2014 (American Independence Day), al-Baghdadi suddenly emerged out of the shadows and delivered the sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul, which had been recently conquered by ISIS. (3) His sermon showed not only his command of Koranic verses, but also his ability to speak clearly and eloquently. He is certainly more steeped in radical Sunni theology than any of the al-Qaeda leaders, past and present, ever were.

His sermon touched on some of the key militant Sunni doctrines, going back to the strict Salafi Hanbali doctrines, the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah who lived at the time of the Mongol invasion of Iraq, to the views of the militant Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, the Lebanese-Egyptian Salafi preacher Rashid Rida, and Pakistani militant theologian and political activist Abul Ala Maududi.

His biographer says that Al-Baghdadi “purged vast areas in Iraq and Syria from the filth of the Safavids [a term referring to the 16th century Iranian Shiite dynasty of the Safavids], the Nusayris [a derogatory term referring to the Syrian Alawite Shiites], and the apostate [Sunni] Awakening Councils. He established the rule of Islam.”

In his short sermon, al-Baghdadi denounced those who did not follow his strict interpretation of Islam as being guilty of bid’a or heresy. He quoted many verses from the Koran about the need to mobilize and to fight against non-believers, and to remain steadfast in God’s path.

He also stressed some key concepts, such as piety and performing religious rituals, obeying God’s commandments, and God’s promise to bring victory to the downtrodden and the oppressed. Finally, he talked about the necessity of the establishment of a caliphate.

In the Koranic context, these terms have broad meanings, similar to the concepts of piety, living by divine teachings, mobilizing in the service of religion, helping the downtrodden and the oppressed, etc.

However, in the hands of al-Baghdadi and other militant jihadis, these terms are given completely different and menacing meanings, calling for jihad and the subjugation of the non-believers. (4)

On 1 July 2014, only two days after the group announced that it would establish a caliphate, it released an audio message by al-Baghdadi in which he promised support to Muslims everywhere. The similarity between al-Baghdadi’s views and the views expressed by Osama Bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks are striking. In the same way that Bin Laden had a long list of alleged oppressions that Muslims suffered throughout the world, al-Baghdadi also portrays himself as the defender of Muslim rights everywhere.

In that message he declared: “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Al-Sham, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Ahvaz, Iran … Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and the West.”

He called on his followers to rise up to free Muslims from oppression: “So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are awaiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades.”

He told his fighters to rise up not only against corrupt Muslim rulers, but also against their alleged masters in the West. He said: “So listen, O Ummah of Islam… Stand up and rise; for the time has come for you to free yourselves from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny, against the treacherous rulers – the agents of the Crusaders and the atheists, and the guards of the Jews.” (5)

The views and actions of al-Baghdadi and his followers are almost an exact copy of the Wahhabi revivalist movement instigated by an 18th century theologian from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792).

Indeed what we are seeing in Iraq now is almost the exact repetition of the violent Sunni uprising in Arabian deserts that led to the establishment of the Wahhabi state founded by the Al Saud clan almost exactly 200 years ago.

In 1802, after having seized control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi warlord Abdulaziz attacked Karbala in Iraq, killed the majority of its inhabitants, destroyed the shrine of Imam Hussein, where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is buried, and plundered everything that they could lay their hands on.

The establishment of that dynasty has resulted in the propagation of the most fundamentalist form of Islam in its long history, which eventually has given rise to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and now to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.

The jihadis reduce the entire rich and varied tapestry of Islamic civilisation, Islamic philosophy, Islamic literature, Islamic mysticism, jurisprudence, Kalam and tafsir (hermeneutics) to the Shari’a, putting it above everything else, including their rationality.

It is important to note that their version of Islam represents a very narrow and dogmatic view of the Shari’a that is rejected by the greatest minds in Islam.

Indeed, it is a travesty that such barbaric terrorist acts are attributed to Islam.


1. The alleged biography is by Jihadist Cleric Turki al-Bin-Ali, also known as Abu Sufyan al-Salmi, posted to Ana al-Muslim Network in Arabic 01 Oct 14. For other accounts of al-Baghdadi’s biography see “A Biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, Insite Blog on Terrorism and Extremism, 12 August 2014.

BBC Profile of Baghdadi, 5 July 2014, BBC profile of Baghdadi.

2. See “Isis chief lived in Kabul during Taliban rule”, Pajhwok Afghan News, June 11, 2014.

3. Al-Baghdadi’s sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul on the meaning of the Caliphate.

4. For an analysis of al-Baghdadi’s sermon, see: Joshua Landis, “The Six Words You Need to Know to Be a Successful Jihadi and Establish Your Own Caliphate”, Syria Comment, July 6th, 2014.

5. For a translation of al-Baghdadi’s speech see a translation provided by MEMRI.

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