Few Iraqi cities bear in their dust-covered stones the tragic symbolism of America’s misbegotten war like Fallujah does. It was there, in March 2004, that angry mobs pulled four Blackwater USA contractors out of their vehicles, dragged them through the streets and hung the bodies of two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates in an unforgettable sign that America was not, in fact, a welcome liberator. And it was there, in the months following, that U.S. forces redeemed the possibility of a peaceful Iraq, fighting house to house, up close and personal, in a costly but successful effort to clear the city of insurgents and make it safe for handover to Iraqi government forces.
So the pain was anything but symbolic for U.S. veterans of the Iraq War when they learned that the city had fallen again on Jan. 4, not just to armed rebels eager to oust the Baghdad government but to a powerful al-Qaeda affiliate that is among the most feared in the Middle East. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), had emerged from weeks of chaotic fighting in Anbar province to drive police and the army from the town. By Sunday night, ISIS fighters had reportedly taken down and burned all the Iraqi flags from the city’s buildings and raised in their place the black banner of al-Qaeda.
ISIS is a threat well beyond Fallujah, thanks to the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and a decade of brutal fighting under his belt, the 42-year-old Iraqi has risen in the ranks of al-Qaeda as few other local affiliate leaders have around the region and the world. He has even been so brazen as to pick a fight with Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And though he has shown little appetite to attack the U.S., he represents the kind of Islamic extremist who counterterrorism officials believe may pose the greatest terrorist threat to Americans in the post–bin Laden era. Yet he is all but unknown to the general public. The only photograph of him in circulation is a grainy shot the U.S. State Department uses to advertise the $10 million price tag it has put on his head.
More immediately, Baghdadi and ISIS represent a clear and present danger to America’s allies and interests in the broader Middle East. Baghdadi has led his fighters across Iraq’s western border into Syria’s civil war, drawing new recruits and seizing and holding territory there. Baghdadi’s jihadists are now as large a day-to-day influence on civilians’ lives in areas they control as any al-Qaeda group since bin Laden’s men enjoyed the freedom of pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Even as Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria made military gains against all rebels, including ISIS, in the past several months, Baghdadi’s forces were able to open a new front in neighboring Lebanon, taking responsibility for the Jan. 2 suicide car-bomb attack in southern Beirut that killed five and injured scores.
The war in Syria has made ISIS the strongest al-Qaeda franchise, says Jessica D. Lewis, director of research at the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington, and author of a recent report on al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq. That has made Baghdadi a target of both the Assad regime and some former allies among the rebels, resulting in battlefield losses in recent weeks. It has also made him a force for the future, if he outlasts his many enemies. Baghdadi “has taken terrain in Syria and Iraq, and he has established a government system,” Lewis says. “He is the one conducting the war that all the foreign fighters are seeking. He is calling the shots, and that will make him a major player in al-Qaeda going forward.”
The Ghost Rises
Baghdadi remains an enigmatic figure. Jihadist websites are full of accounts of his battlefield exploits, but surprisingly little is known about the man himself. Born Ibrahim bin ‘Awad bin Ibrahim al-Badri ar-Radawi al-Husseini as-Samara’i in 1971 to a religious family in Samarra, Iraq, he claims in an online profile written by a follower to trace his lineage all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre; he also goes by Abu Du’a.
When the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi joined forces with his mentor Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who went on to found al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Over the years, Baghdadi climbed the ranks. Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, died in 2010. A subsequent leader died shortly thereafter, and Baghdadi took over AQI’s leadership in 2010.
Abdul Rahman Hamad, an ISIS fighter from Homs, Syria, who is recovering from injuries in a safe house in Tripoli, Lebanon, remembers meeting Baghdadi at a training camp in Diyala province in eastern Iraq in 2004, when he and hundreds of other Syrian jihadists flooded into Iraq to combat the Americans. Baghdadi seldom spoke, Hamad tells TIME, but when he did, “he had a calm and convincing voice,” even in the middle of an air strike. As a commander, Baghdadi stood out for his focus on his men’s safety, planning not only sophisticated attacks but also secure retreats.
Baghdadi wanted to keep himself alive too, says Hamad. Early on in the war, Baghdadi started disguising himself, wrapping a scarf around his face even in the presence of close associates. “[He] knew how men can be seduced by money, so he never shared his secrets with anyone,” says Hamad. Members of Hizballah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia fighting on behalf of Syrian President Assad against ISIS and the rebels, call him the Ghost. “Only a few people know the face of Baghdadi,” says Sheik Ahmad, the Hizballah intelligence official in charge of investigating ISIS’s fighters in Syria. Ahmad, who spoke to TIME on condition of not revealing his full name, says his archenemy can slip effortlessly into convincing regional accents, from Lebanese to Syrian to Saudi Arabic.
Baghdadi’s self-preservation skills have proved vital as the conflict in Syria has devolved into a fragmented and chaotic multifront war in which friends quickly become enemies. ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates there are battling Assad alongside moderate and Islamist rebels. But Baghdadi’s goal is to establish an Islamic empire anchored in Syria and based on a literalist interpretation of Islamic law, which has put him at odds with other, less conservative insurgents, whose primary goal is the overthrow of the Assad regime. Already Baghdadi has engaged rebel groups that he deemed insufficiently Islamic, forcibly taking towns controlled by moderates.
If such predatory tactics have made Baghdadi enemies among Syria’s anti-Assad rebels, his leadership qualities have attracted followers from among the many foreign fighters who have gone to Syria in search of jihadi glory over the past 2½ years. And he has built his forces in other ways. On July 21, about 50 ISIS fighters armed with machine guns and grenades launched a bold attack on Iraq’s most heavily fortified prison, on the outskirts of Baghdad, breaching its huge walls with mortars and car bombs to free an estimated 500 al-Qaeda militants. Many of the liberated prisoners were high-value al-Qaeda operatives, battlefield tacticians and bombmakers–some arrested by U.S. troops before their 2011 withdrawal–and shaky videos showed the exultant terrorists piling into the backs of Toyota pickup trucks destined for Syria and the deserts of western Iraq.
Dreams of the Caliphate
Baghdadi doesn’t just fight; he holds terrain. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, whose population is nearly 2 million, ISIS is so strong that Baghdadi’s operatives collect unofficial taxes to support their cause unmolested. ISIS has taken several frontier posts on the Syrian side of that nation’s border with Turkey (a U.S. ally and NATO member), including the strategic town of Azaz in September. It has also captured Syrian oil fields and refineries, which help it generate income locally. ISIS’s 6,000 to 10,000 well-equipped soldiers, heavy weaponry and sophisticated attacks are evidence of Baghdadi’s other robust funding streams, including kidnapping for ransom and donations from private supporters in the Gulf.
In March 2013, ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa and its environs, where an influx of citizens fleeing the war had swelled the population to 1 million, making it the largest municipality ever solely administered by an al-Qaeda affiliate. There Baghdadi began establishing the trappings of government. He quickly set up Islamic courts and took control of the distribution of humanitarian aid, handing out fuel to residents and ensuring a steady supply of electricity to the city. ISIS established a school in Raqqa and late last year launched a bus service to the surrounding villages.
The security and services Raqqa’s residents received from Baghdadi were accompanied by certain religious strictures. Billboards promoting Islamic law and veils for women blossomed throughout the city. Roving bands of ISIS police plucked cigarettes from the lips of smokers and tore from rearview mirrors the dangling talismans traditionally used to ward off the evil eye–an affront to the true Islam, say the enforcers. Those who spoke out against ISIS’s draconian rules were tried in Islamic courts for apostasy, say opposition activists based in Raqqa. Others simply disappeared.
Baghdadi’s ability to establish a foothold in Raqqa, one of the capitals of Islam’s golden age, has inspired a millenarian fervor among his followers and strengthened his claim to prominence, says a Western aid worker based in Turkey who has close dealings with ISIS representatives. And success has led Baghdadi to publicize his broader ambitions. During Ramadan celebrations in Raqqa in August, ISIS displayed a map that showed a borderless country stretching from the edge of Iran to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and across North Africa–a near re-creation of the 8th century Abbasid caliphate, the first Islamic empire. “At this point Baghdadi is saying, ‘We are the real jihadis, we have actually won territory, and we are closer to having a caliphate than any other al-Qaeda group before,'” says the aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his organization from reprisal.
That presents a welcome development for beleaguered al-Qaeda affiliates around the world but also a challenge. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s designated successor, still wields influence in the organization, yet his ability to direct operations is compromised by having to live in hiding. As a consequence, affiliates like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, Somalia’s al-Shabab and Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are rising in prominence and vying for leadership roles. However, it is ISIS that has the biggest stage and Baghdadi the most clout. The question is whether his clout is too much for al-Qaeda’s old guard, says Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Rand Corp., a security-policy think tank in Washington. “He is the naughty son, the one who keeps pushing the line. For the moment he still has a relationship with his parents in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda central is based, but he is giving them a huge headache.”
In May, Zawahiri was forced to publicly intervene in a spat between Baghdadi and his onetime deputy Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, head of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, over Baghdadi’s attempt to merge the two organizations. In a letter followed by an audio recording, Zawahiri abolished ISIS and ordered Baghdadi back to Iraq. Baghdadi didn’t listen, snapping back in a terse audio recording that ISIS would stay intact. “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God,” he said. Almost all the foreign fighters and many of al-Nusra’s top commanders defected to ISIS, pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, according to both Jones and Lewis.
Yet Baghdadi may have overreached. Even as ISIS regains territory in Iraq, it is slowly being pushed out of its northern Syrian stronghold by a broad coalition of moderate and Islamist groups–including members of al-Nusra–who are fed up with its draconian interpretations of Islamic law and its abuses of power. After ISIS’s abduction, torture and killing of a popular doctor who commanded a rival militia, on Jan. 1 near Aleppo, days of fierce infighting between insurgent factions led to an anti-Baghdadi victory of sorts. By Jan. 6, ISIS had been largely forced from its Raqqa stronghold. Terrorism analysts suspect it may be a tactical withdrawal on Baghdadi’s part as he calls in reinforcements from Iraq and western Syria. Losing Raqqa at this point could be perceived as an ideological blow to a leader who says he has a divine mandate to rule over a new Islamic emirate, but the militia remains powerful and dangerous. “Even though ISIS has suffered territorial losses in the past few days, it hasn’t lost the capacity to inflict damage on any target they please,” says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. ISIS launched one suicide car-bomb attack in the contested town of Darkoush, Syria, on Jan. 6, killing at least 17 fighters from a rival brigade, and ISIS commanders in Aleppo were accused of killing some 50 detainees on the same day–many of them political activists, fighters, citizen journalists and relief workers–according to a statement from the Syrian opposition coalition, which represents Syria’s political opposition as well as the Syrian revolutionaries’ front.
A similar backlash against Baghdadi appears to be under way in Iraq. Security forces there have announced preparations to retake Fallujah, and some Sunni tribes, aggrieved by the Shi’ite-dominated government’s neglect, are slowly coming to the conclusion that Baghdadi, even if he does share their faith, may yet present the greater evil.
Worries in Washington
That may be good news in the short term for the U.S.–Baghdadi is much too occupied with his local ambitions and the troubles they have made for him to turn his attention to the West. But the resistance to Baghdadi may prove fragile in the face of his brutality and his skill, and some in the U.S. worry about him as a threat in the future. U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria are debating when to launch an attack on the West. “They’re talking about conducting external operations,” Rogers warned in an address to policymakers at the 2013 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum in Washington in October. “The only thing we think is stopping it now is the fact that there is this struggle between al-Qaeda core leadership saying, ‘Hold off, don’t do it yet.'” Baghdadi’s international reputation has drawn recruits from the U.S. and Europe, sparking fears that they may return home radicalized and well trained. U.S. National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew G. Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 14 that ISIS’s “growing cadre of Western recruits probably bolsters the group’s pool of external operatives who could be used to target the West.”
A future threat is not enough to change the war-weary politics of Washington right now, however. Congress and most Americans oppose direct intervention in Syria, and the White House rules out any American strikes against ISIS in Iraq. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared after Fallujah fell. Instead, the Obama Administration is pushing to send more sophisticated arms to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and is accelerating delivery of weapons already purchased by the Iraqis, including Hellfire missiles and dozens of surveillance drones.
Al-Maliki, for his part, has urged Fallujah’s residents to oust ISIS themselves, a cruel joke for those facing the war-hardened Baghdadi and his troops. For now, it appears Americans and Iraqis alike can only hope that no new tragedies emerge to haunt them from the dusty stones of Fallujah.
—With reporting by Michael Crowley and Mark Thompson/Washington and Rami Aysha/Beirut
This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.