Inside the Rise and Reign of ISIS’s Leader

A still from FRONTLINE's "The Secret History of ISIS."

A still from FRONTLINE's "The Secret History of ISIS."

June 16, 2017

Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday it may have killed ISIS’s leader and self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in an airstrike in May.

Even if the reports turn out to be true, Baghdadi’s death wouldn’t be the end of ISIS, according to counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett. “[I]t’s a setback rather than a defeat, because [ISIS is] an idea as much as it is a movement,” Barrett said. “The idea is still out there. The reasons the idea took root are still out there.”

In 2014, FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith spoke to Barrett as part of the film The Rise of ISIS, which traces how the group seized vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. In this video, Barrett explains how Baghdadi rose to lead the terrorist group.


Although Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate has been losing ground in its core territories in Iraq and Syria, Barrett said even in the event of the ISIS leader’s death, his supporters might be inspired to fight harder to defend the idea of an Islamic state.

And, as FRONTLINE film, The Secret History of ISIS detailed, ISIS survived a similar transition after its founding father Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. This excerpt from the film explains how Baghdadi, who spent time in an American prison during the U.S. occupation, ultimately helped to rebuild ISIS from the remains of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

If ISIS follows the same path as its predecessor, it will likely outlast Baghdadi, Barrett said, just possibly in a different form. “Just as when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed and it dealt a blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it came back, there will be an underground organization that survives,” he said. “There will be sufficient structure left to ensure that organization at least has some potential to re-germinate and re-grow.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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