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What Is (Who Are) the Islamic State (6 of ?)

November 24, 2015

This article from the HuffPost recommended 10 is “The Believer,” by William McCants, who has just published The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. In a review at Daily Kos, Susan Grigsby points out that McCants brings to bear his proficiency in “Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies, and Arabic.”

Here is an outline of the present article, omitting much detail.

In his youth, the Leader of the Islamic State, Abu al-Baghdadi (b. 1971, Samarra), was nick-named “The Believer.” He was introverted, studious, intense, stoic on the soccer field, but impatient with “anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.”

McCants traces his radicalization to “an unlikely but highly volatile mixture of fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein’s secular totalitarianism, and his own need to control others,” which was then intensified by the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

His father was lower middle class, pious, and able to trace his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. As a teenager Baghdadi mastered and taught the art of chanting the Quran (the article includes audio).

Some of his relatives, including a brother, joined Saddam’s Ba’athist, secular political party and served in the army and intelligence services.   It seems that some relatives, perhaps even Baghdadi’s father, were adherents to the puritanical Salafi form of Sunni Islam.

While pursuing his doctorate at the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, Baghdadi joined “the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational movement dedicated to establishing states governed by Islamic law,” and the “jihadist Salafis” whose “strict creed led them to call for the overthrow of rulers they considered betrayers of the faith.”

In late 2003 he helped found an insurgent group to fight U. S. troops and their local allies. Beginning in February 2004 he was a “civilian detainee” in the American prison, Camp Bucca, where he was admired for his soccer prowess and religious intensity, but also for his ability to mediate between prison groups, including the Americans. He was further educated in jihad, and met former Sunni Arabs who had been officers in Saddam’s military and intelligence services.

“’If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no [Islamic State] now,’ recalled the inmate interviewed by The Guardian. ‘Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.’ The prisoners dubbed the camp ‘The Academy,’ and during his ten months in residence, Baghdadi was one of its faculty members.”

As the organizations of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State continued to develop, although without territory, Baghdadi was put in charge of religious affairs, including making sure that propaganda, and actions of soldiers, were in line with religious creed, including punishment of wrong-doers. Meanwhile he wrote his dissertation and received his doctorate in Islamic Studies, certifying him as an Islamic scholar.

Upon the deaths in 2010 of the two top leaders of IS, Hajji Bakr, the head of IS’s military council, Hajji Bakr (see page 5 of this episode), arranged for Baghdadi, aged 39, to be elected Emir. Hajji Bakr took Saddam-like steps to consolidate power under Baghdadi.

In 2011 Baghdadi established a branch of IS, the Nusra Front, in Syria; and by 2014 he had consolidated territory in Syria for IS, and instituted the kind of governance that one would expect near the end of this article. In June 2014, IS fighters along with local tribesmen, religious zealots, and Ba’athist secularists conquered territory in western Iraq and proclaimed Baghdadi supreme leader of a new caliphate.

The final paragraphs of the article assess Baghdadi’s extraordinary character and achievement, and thus his importance to IS:

“Throughout his life, Baghdadi has chosen the path of religious extremism, and in ways as small as denouncing dancers at a wedding and as large as mass executions he has always attempted to impose his views on others. He could have been a university professor, persuading young minds with argument. But the believer became the commander of the believers, seeking to impose his savagely bleak religious vision on the entire world . . . .”

[Page 1 of this episode; Page 7]

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