Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi who rose from obscurity to declare himself “caliph” of all Muslims as the leader of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) armed group, has been killed in a US raid, the US president announced on Sunday.
Donald Trump claimed that al-Baghdadi, 48, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest during the raid in northwest Syria‘s Idlib.
DNA test results from the aftermath of the raid had positively identified al-Baghdadi, the US president said.
Al-Baghdadi had long been a target for the US and regional security forces trying to eliminate ISIL even after the armed group was pushed out of the territory it once held, straddling Syria and Iraq.
Yet it continued to spread further into Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq, where they enslaved minorities, including members of the Yazidi community.
At its peak in January 2015, ISIL covered an area across Syria and Iraq roughly equivalent to the size of the UK and attracted 40,000 foreign fighters to its cause.
The group also caused global revulsion with beheadings of hostages from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.
The United States put up a $25m reward for al-Baghdadi’s capture, the same amount it had offered for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahri.
US air raids had already killed most of al-Baghdadi’s top lieutenants, including Abu Omar al-Shishani, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Sayyaf and the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.
Thousands of ISIL fighters have been killed or captured since a global coalition was formed to defeat the group in September 2014.
Al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai in 1971 in Tobchi, a poor area near the town of Samarra, north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, whose name he took.
His family included preachers from the ultra-conservative Salafi school of Sunni Islam, which sees many other branches of the faith as heretical and other religions as anathema.
He joined an armed movement in Iraq in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and was captured by the Americans. They released him about a year later, thinking he was a civilian agitator rather than a military threat.
In 2005, the father of five pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Iraq’s al-Qaeda franchise.
Al-Zarqawi was killed by an American drone attack in 2006, months later his followers and some faithful fighters broke away from al-Qaeda and named themselves the Islamic State of Iraq after merging with other armed groups on the ground.
After al-Zarqawi’s successor – Abu Omar al-Baghdadi – was also eliminated, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the helm in 2010.
He expanded the group, which became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2012 upon its expansion into Syria.
‘Commander of the faithful’
It was not until July 4, 2014, that al-Baghdadi seized the world’s attention, climbing the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval al-Nuri mosque in black clerical garb during Friday prayers to announce the restoration of the caliphate.
“God ordered us to fight his enemies,” he said in a video of the occasion, which presented him as “Caliph Ibrahim, commander of the faithful”.
Thousands of volunteers flocked into Iraq and Syria from around the world to become “Jund al-Khilafa” – soldiers of the caliphate – and join him in his fight against the Shia-led Iraqi government and its Western allies.
ISIL ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad.
The group claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in dozens of cities around the world including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in nearby Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In Iraq, it staged dozens of attacks on predominantly Shia Muslim areas. A truck bomb in July 2016 killed more than 324 people in a crowded part of Baghdad, the deadliest attack since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The group also carried out many bombings in northeast Syria, which has been under the control of US-backed Kurdish forces.
Most of al-Baghdadi’s speeches were distributed as audio recordings, a medium better suited to the secretive, careful character that for a long time helped him evade the surveillance and air raids that killed more than 40 of his top commanders.
That caution was matched by ruthlessness as he eliminated opponents and former allies, even within the movement’s ranks. He waged war on al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the al-Nusra Front, breaking with the movement’s global leader, al-Zawahri, in 2013.
But by the time of his death in the US raid this weekend, his fortunes – and those of ISIL – were in rapid decline.
With the defeat of ISIL in its stronghold of Mosul, which was declared the capital of his caliphate, in 2017 the movement lost all the territory it once controlled in Iraq.
In Syria, ISIL lost Raqqa, its second capital and centre of operations, and eventually earlier this year its final chunk of territory in Baghouz was captured by the US-backed Kurdish forces.
ISIL sleeper cells
While the destruction of the quasi-state that Baghdadi built has denied the group its recruiting tool and logistical base from which it could train fighters and plan coordinated attacks overseas, most security experts believe ISIL remains a threat through clandestine operations or attacks.
ISIL is believed to have sleeper cells around the world, and some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraq’s cities, still launching hit-and-run attacks.
In his most recent audio message, in September, al-Baghdadi put on a brave face, saying operations were taking place daily and urging followers to secure freedom for women jailed in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to the group.
“As for the worst and most important matter, the prisons, the prisons, oh soldiers of the caliphate. Your brothers and sisters; do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them,” al-Baghdadi said.
The loss of territory forced him to travel incognito in ordinary cars or farm pick-up trucks between hideouts on both sides of the border, escorted only by his driver and two bodyguards.
The region was familiar territory to his men. It was the hotbed of the Sunni movement against first the US forces in Iraq and then the Shia-led governments that took over the country.
Fearing assassination or betrayal, he was not able to use phones and trusted only a handful of couriers to communicate with his two main Iraqi aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defence minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, his security chief.
The two had been believed to be among the likely candidates to succeed al-Baghdadi, but Jumaili was killed in April 2017 and Obaidi’s whereabouts are unknown.
But their military background and lack of religious credentials mean that any of al-Baghdadi’s deputies would struggle to inherit his claims to be caliph.