For years, it seemed that we all knew everything we needed to know about Osama bin Laden, including, importantly, what he looked like. We want to know what our foe looks like.
And, at least in simple terms, we understood Osama’s goal was to punish the United States and other Westerners (and their values) for representing what he perceived as a threat to his religious, cultural and political beliefs.
But until recently we knew next to nothing about the man behind today’s most dangerous threat to global peace, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
His organization claims to have recruited fighters from Britain, France, Germany and other European countries, as well as the United States, the Arab world and the Caucasus. This is no longer a local group with a grudge.
Baghdadi, who last week called on all the world’s Muslims to pledge their allegiance to him, is not yet a household name. There are few photographs of him, so it was big news last weekend when a video purportedly showing him leading prayers in Mosul surfaced. Iraq security forces are analyzing the tapes.
Baghdadi may be a shadowy figure. But given the way ISIL is destroying everything in its path — everything the United States and its allies tried, at such a high cost, to create in Iraq, namely a well-functioning democracy with well-trained and disciplined security forces — surely his name should become as familiar as that of any previous international terrorist leader.
Until recently, this new symbol of Islamist extremism did not appear to covet attention. There were no propaganda videos designed to glorify him and his cause. He remained a man of mystery. Compared to bin Laden, he was certainly publicity-shy.
But with his military success in both Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi has become more notorious.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, recently offered its own analysis of this obscure figure who is responsible for so much violence. The newspaper reported that Baghdadi was born in 1971 into a religious family in the city of Samarra — that’s about 80 miles north of Baghdad — and earned a doctorate in education from the University of Baghdad. “There are competing versions of how he came to jihad,” the Guardian reported. “One version suggests that he was already a militant jihadist during the time of Saddam Hussein.”
But another version in circulation describes how, after the American-led invasion in 2003, he was drawn into the emerging al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He helped smuggle foreign fighters into Iraq and later became the “emir” of Rawa, near the Syrian border.
In Rawa, the Guardian reported, Baghdadi presided over a sharia (Islamic law) court and became notorious for his brutality, including publicly executing those suspected of having helped the American-led coalition forces.
The same sort of brutality has become all too common in those parts of Syria where his forces have gained control. They joined the Syrian rebels trying to end the corrupt regime of President Assad, but their brutal tactics have drawn heavy criticism and driven a wedge between the two groups.
Baghdadi preached and taught at various mosques and apparently led several smaller militant groups before he was promoted to a more prominent role in the Islamic State and the Levant, the Guardian reported.
And by now, while there remains a certain mystique surrounding him, a mystique that was enhanced by his organization’s stunning capture of Mosul and its advance toward Baghdad itself, as the Guardian notes, there is “no mystery about what Baghdadi wants.”
It is his belief that all Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled by sharia law, and he believes he made the first step toward that by declaring the creation of a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq.
While he may remain obscure to the rest of us, Washington believes his record and agenda are frightening enough that the government has placed a $10 million bounty on his head.
And he, in turn, has severely complicated already-fragile American foreign policy. The United States certainly will be reluctant to send troops back to Iraq to help the inept government that’s running things now, but neither Washington nor America’s allies can afford to let Baghdadi and his jihadist followers destabilize the entire region.
In a very real sense, Baghdadi is a more dangerous threat to American and European security than even bin Laden was because, for all the evil he represented, bin Laden never ruwled over a broad geographic area the way Baghdadi will if his merciless mission is not repelled.
To describe him as the new bin Laden is to grossly understate the threat he represents. We’d better get to know him a lot better than we do now.