‘A normal family man’… Who is al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader ‘killed’ by Russia?

“May have been killed” and it was already Friday’s lead story in the international media! Says something about how famous — or notorious — al-Baghdadi is. So what do you know about him?


This is not the first time al-Baghdadi has been reported killed? And just like we’re not entirely sure of his death this time, we’ve never been entirely sure of his name.

The name ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’ has become so synonymous with terror that so many people think it’s real. But that name is in fact just a pseudonym. His other nom de plumes include Abu Du’a, Al-Shabah (the phantom or ghost), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, Amir al-Mu’minin, Caliph Ibrahim, Sheikh Baghdadi, Abu Duaa and Dr Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. His birth name is widely thought to be Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri — although a Washington Times reporter once said his real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, while an ex-wife of his once said she met him at when he was Hisham Mohammad.


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi 2Al-Baghdadi grew up being shy, unimpressive and nonviolent. Ahmed al-Dabash, the leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq and a contemporary of al-Baghdadi who fought against the allied invasion in 2003, once described him as someone who was hardly noticed in the university.

Al-Baghdadi has a doctorate in Quranic studies from Saddam University in Baghdad, and obtained a BA, MA, and PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. He also earned a doctorate in Education from the same university.

“I was with Baghdadi at the Islamic University. We studied the same course, but he wasn’t a friend. He was quiet, and retiring. He spent time alone,” al-Dabash told Daily Telegraph.

“I used to know all the leaders [of the insurgency] personally. Zarqawi [former leader of al-Qaeda] was closer than a brother to me … But I didn’t know Baghdadi. He was insignificant. He used to lead prayer in a mosque near my area. No one really noticed him.”

Perhaps it is true, then, that silent people are usually the deadliest.


al-baghdadiThere are lots of heavyweights in ISIS who cannot recognise al-Baghdadi should they see him — that is the extent to which he is mythical. Sometime in 2015, he was nicknamed in ISIS as “the invisible sheikh”!

Patrick Skinner of Soufan Group, a security consulting firm, once said of al-Baghdadi: “They [the US and Iraqi Governments] know physically who this guy is, but his backstory is just myth.”

“He’s managed this secret persona extremely well, and it’s enhanced his group’s prestige”, said Patrick Johnston of the RAND Corporation. “Young people are really attracted to that.”


Al-Baghdadi’s infamous rise as a high-calibre terrorist began in May 2010 when he inherited the reins of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from its erstwhile leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who had been killed.  ISI or AQI was the Iraqi division of al-Qaeda

As leader of ISI, al-Baghdadi masterminded large-scale attacks such the 28 August 2011 suicide bombing at the Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad, which killed prominent Sunni lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi. Between March and April 2011 alone, he masterminded 23 attacks south of Baghdad.


al-Baghdadi ChildrenAccording to Saja al-Dulaimi, who married al-Baghdadi after the death of her first husband, he was a normal family man and he took such great care of her children that he was their idol.

“He loved the children. He was their idol. He was an excellent person in that respect, but my relationship with him was shallow,” al-Dunami told Swedish newspaper Expressen in March, three months after the Lebanese government exchanged her and her daughter for Lebanese soldiers being held by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front in a prisoner swap deal.

She was arrested in Lebanon in December 2014 on charges of belonging to a terrorist group, holding contacts with terrorist organisations, and planning to carry out terrorist acts.

“I was not in love with him. I didn’t love him,” she added. “He was an enigmatic person. You couldn’t have a discussion or hold a normal conversation with him. In the evening, when he came home, we would usually eat dinner together. He just asked about things and told me to fetch things. He gave orders, nothing more.”


Saja al-Baghdadi
Saja al-Baghdadi

Just as he managed to be evasive in ISIS, he was at home. When al-Dunami was arrested in Lebanon on account of her links to al-Baghdadi, she was shell-shocked.



    “I didn’t notice that he was actively involved in the resistance movement at all. He was a normal family man. How he could become Emir of the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world is a mystery,” she said.

    “It was when I got to Lebanon that I received the shocking news. They showed me pictures of my ex-husband and asked me if I recognised him. It turns out I was married to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was a shock to find out — seven years later — that I’d been married to the most dangerous man in the world. I smashed a window in anger.”


    In October 2011, the US officially designated Baghdadi a “terrorist” and offered a $10m (£5.8m or €7.3m) reward for information leading to his capture or death. At current black market rate, that’s N365million. You have some background information already; with some more digging, the money could be yours!

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