Even to those who have hunted him and followed his every move, Islamic State (IS) Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains a mystery.
“Before anything I want to understand why he became like this, why an academic would make such a choice and how he feels toward the thousands of people he has killed around the Middle East. Then I’ll make sure he gets punished,” Maj. Bakr (a pseudonym), a member of the elite Iraqi counterterrorist unit the Falcon Brigade, said.
Iraqi forces had him in their crosshairs on Nov. 8, 2014, but an airstrike came too late and a wounded Baghdadi, 44, managed to slip across the Syrian border. The self-styled caliph now travels secretly and has avoided the public eye, apart from his infamous Friday sermons at a mosque in Mosul. While seclusion has only raised his profile, Baghdadi’s origins remain wreathed in more mystery than his movements.
Uncovering the man behind the demagogue was no easy task, so to find an answer I interviewed people who met him, saw him or lived with him in the past. I visited the neighborhood where he lived in Baghdad and the mosque he led the prayer services as an imam; I saw pictures of his family members, including his sons, daughters, brothers and wife. Based on all this, I will try to depict the man before he became the elusive Baghdadi, when his name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, or Sheikh Ibrahim, of Samarra and he led a fairly normal life.
How did Sheikh Ibrahim become Caliph Baghdadi?
This was the main question to answer. The first place to visit was the neighborhood of Tobji, nestled in northwest Baghdad, where he lived and was the imam of the Sunni mosque of Haji Zeidan, built in 1958.
I headed directly to the mosque’s wooden door, knocked twice before a policeman opened and expressed surprise when I asked if this was the place where the IS leader used to lead the congregational prayer as an imam. “I don’t know anything about this,” the policeman said, before calling Khaled, the man who introduced himself to me as the son of the mosque’s imam. “People here are afraid of discussing this issue openly,” Khaled said. “My father has been arrested several times because of Baghdadi. The last time he was detained for almost two months. The intelligence wanted to talk to him once more. I’m not sure you’ll find someone to tell you anything here.”