Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law. ... Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. ... Since Baghdadi’s sudden emergence from obscurity in 2014 as the monster who ordered and broadcast on YouTube the beheading and even burning alive of those he deemed his enemies, news articles and books have traced his radicalization back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the American invasion fed the fire and enabled it to spread, in fact, his radicalization began much earlier, ignited by an unlikely but highly volatile mixture of fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein’s secular totalitarianism, and his own need to control others. ... there is evidence that several of Baghdadi’s family members, perhaps even his father, were Salafis—adherents of an extreme, puritanical form of Sunni Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and throughout much of the Middle East, including Iraq, where it has deep roots. ... Saddam’s creation of new jobs teaching the scripture may have influenced Baghdadi’s academic career. Unable to study law at the University of Baghdad as he wanted because of his middling grades in high school—he nearly failed English—Baghdadi studied the Quran there instead. ... Baghdadi’s master’s thesis was a commentary on an obscure medieval text on Quranic recitation. His task was to reconcile various versions of the manuscript. While tedious, it involved little imagination and no questioning of the content—a perfect project for a dogmatist. ... Radical jihadist manifestos circulated freely under the eyes of the watchful but clueless Americans. ... The growing unrest in Syria in 2011 played directly into their hands. Presented with an opportunity to inject violence into what had been a peaceful revolt, Baghdadi sent one of his Syrian operatives to set up a secret branch of the Islamic State in the country that year. The branch, later known as the Nusra Front, initially followed the Islamic State’s playbook by attacking civilians as part of a clandestine terror campaign to sow chaos. The hope was that the Islamic State would be able to capitalize on that chaos in order to make its first land grab.
- Also: Council on Foreign Relations - Backgrounders: The Islamic State 5-15min
- Also: Bloomberg - The Doomsday Ideology of Islamic State's Leader < 5min
- Also: The Chronicle of Higher Education - The Ties That Bind Jihadists 5-15min
- Also: Business Insider - An ISIS defector explained a key reason people continue joining the group < 5min
- Also: The Daily Beast - Meet the Islamic Fanatic Who Wants to Kill ISIS < 5min
- Also: Al-Jazeera - ISIL sells its oil, but who is buying it? < 5min
- Also: Bloomberg - Why ISIS Has All the Money It Needs < 5min
Last year, three million came for the hajj, a pilgrimage in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar that is considered obligatory for every Muslim who can afford it; five million more came for the umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be made for much of the year. And millions of Saudi citizens routinely pass through Mecca’s sacred sites as tourists. ... It is a transformation that has been underway since the late 1970s, when the wealth generated by the oil boom led Saudi monarchs to devise an ambitious plan to replace earlier Ottoman structures and to expand the Grand Mosque and its surroundings with Arab-style architecture. At a projected cost of $26.6 billion, the Saudi Binladen Group has led the efforts to increase the capacity of the Grand Mosque ... Throughout the history of Islam, no other ruler built in such proximity to the Kaaba; certainly none built anything to dwarf it. In luxury hotels like the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower and the Raffles Makkah Palace, views of the holiest site of Islam are marketed as the “Haram view” and “Kaaba view,” and a standard room can run anywhere from $1,500 to $2,700 a night during the hajj.
The figure of Yahya—an English-speaking convert within ISIS with powerful connections and the cojones to challenge Baghdadi to a death match—intrigued me. But Cerantonio didn’t elaborate on his identity and referred to him only by an alias, in the traditional Arabic style, with his first name and the name of his firstborn: Yahya, father of Hassan. He said Yahya was a fellow Dhahiri—a member of an obscure, ultra-literalist legal school that had enjoyed a sort of revival within the Islamic State. He didn’t, or wouldn’t, say more. I wrote down the name and committed to investigating Yahya later. ... Soon enough, I began collecting clues to his identity.