A nameless woman “dumped on a street, arms and legs cut off, entrails eviscerated” — this is just one testament from Bing West’s account of Fallujah in 2004.
This was the first mini-caliphate of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). West’s quote still matters, because it sums up the real-world impact of Salafi jihadism, the ideology of sick totalitarianism that once inspired Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that now motivates Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Leading ISIS, Baghdadi is painting Iraq and Syria with the blood of all those who do not yield. And be under no illusions: ISIS does not believe in geographic boundaries. The group intends to export death westward. Its agenda is global.
Nevertheless, now that Baghdadi has stepped out into the open, we can more closely examine his character and agenda. Effective counter-terrorism analysis demands the scrutiny of personalities. Doing so helps us understand what a particular group might be planning next. Applied to Salafi jihadists, this task is a very sobering one. That’s certainly the case with Baghdadi.
This man is a true portrait of death. Having made his name as a battlefield commander and brutal administrator along the Euphrates River in Iraq’s Anbar Province, Baghdadi is the ultimate consequentialist, meaning that he’ll do anything to build his power and achieve his ends. Although details on his pre-2011 activities in Iraq are not easily accessible, we can confidently surmise two things about the leader.
First, he was personally involved in some grotesque crimes. That’s because AQI commanders earned their stripes through the creative pursuit of maximum misery. Whether using the mentally ill as suicide-bomb mules or blowing up crowds of children, AQI has a sense of ordained purpose that propels it to unrestrained violence. In Ramadi, a city in Anbar, AQI’s domination led to an exodus of all who had the means to leave, including many professionals, businessmen, and civil servants. They left behind a deathly ghost town. As Richard Shultz notes in his study of Anbar Province during the Iraq War, AQI’s death fetish was so extreme that it rejected the most solemn of Anbar’s cultural customs: the ability of a family to bury its dead. Indeed, hiding the body of one tribal sheikh it had murdered, AQI sparked a revolution. We know that Baghdadi was part of this; if he hadn’t been, his rise to the top of AQI and then ISIS wouldn’t have been possible. But what AQI’s history in Iraq really tells us is that men like Baghdadi are incapable of strategic caution. Instead, they embrace bloodlust as an end in itself.
Second, though he lacks strategic caution, we can assume that Baghdadi is astute about the need for tactical awareness. After all, he’s proven himself good at staying alive. Having evaded the exceptional counter-terrorism campaign led by General Stanley McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command, Baghdadi clearly understands and can adapt to the capabilities of his adversaries.
We must pay heed to this history. Today, Baghdadi has replaced bin Laden as the leader of global jihadism. Increasingly mythologized as an heir to Saladin, a purifier of holy lands, Baghdadi has the desire and, at least in the short term, the means to bring brutal chaos to the world. Following the warped path of 10th-century zealots and 20th-century malcontents, Baghdadi sees democracy and individual rights as crimes against God. To him, they are offenses that must meet the sharp sword of sharia “justice” and the final determination of an absolute authority.
And who might be that authority, God’s representative on Earth? Mr. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.