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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the self-styled leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS), and perhaps the world’s most-wanted terrorist. The group he led made savagery, rape, and plunder its calling cards throughout Syria and Iraq, and exported its agents and ideology throughout the world.But first, he was instrumental in combining jihadi groups operating in Iraq and Syria into one terrorist organization. The group’s grand ambitions: spreading both ideologically and territorially. And it did that — at its height, ISIS controlled an area the size of England, across Syria and Iraq.
Who was he and how did he shape ISIS? Here are some of the outlines of his life.
Al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri in 1971 in the Iraqi city of Samarra. He studied the Quran at Baghdad University and then entered a graduate program for Quranic recitation at Saddam University for Islamic Studies — an institution founded in the late 1980s by Saddam Hussein. It was there that Al-Baghdadi became enamored with the writings of Muslim Brotherhood members who embraced jihadism.
He fought for a series of Sunni militant groups in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He would end up spending five years in American military prisons in Iraq, but was released in 2009. In 2010, he became the head of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, al-Qaida set up a satellite group known as Jabhat al Nusra. Two years later, he announced that the Nusra Front and ISIS had been fused into one group.
In 2014, the famously reclusive militant leader made a public appearance at the Grand Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, where he declared a revived Islamic Caliphate, and called for the world’s Muslims to obey him as caliph. He was repeatedly falsely reported as dead, but last month ISIS’s media wing released a recording purportedly from al-Baghdadi, in which he urged followers to stage attacks when possible, and to help release prisoners held in camps in Iraq and Syria.
Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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