Soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the Seventh Century AD, Arab Muslin tribes burst out of the Arabian peninsula to begin a wave of conquest that ran on for centuries. Muhammad’s successors as leaders of the Muslims took the title of Caliph (“Successor” to the Prophet). The single large Arab empire soon fragmented into multiple kingdoms. Sometimes the rulers claimed the title of Caliph. The last important ruler to claim the title was the Ottoman emperor. The title went unclaimed after the fall of that empire at the end of the First World War. As more and more of the Muslim world fell under direct or indirect control of non-Muslims, especially of European states, nostalgia grew for the days of Muslim power and unity.
Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai was born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971. He claims to be a descendant of Muhammad’s own Quraysh tribe. He earned a doctorate in religious law and set up as a preacher. Salafism was all the rage among Sunni Muslims at the time and he found himself attracted to it.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, al-Badri joined the resistance. In particular, he joined not the Sunni Iraqi tribesmen fighting against the Americans and the Shi-ite majority, but Al Qaeda in Iraq. This franchise of al Qaeda sought to foster war between Sunni and Shi’a in order to make the Iraq occupation a disaster for the United States. In 2005 American troops arrested him during a raid on a resistance group. He spent some time locked-up in Camp Bucca. In the United States prison sometimes serves as a sort of advanced education in crime and as an anti-social networking site. That seems to have been the case with Camp Bucca as well. Al-Badri got to know a lot of people with views similar to his own. As part of its effort to disengage from the war in Iraq, the Americans turned over many of their prisoners to the new Iraqi government. As part of its effort to mend fences with former opponents, the Iraqi government let many of them go. Badri was among those released.
He went back to the struggle against the Americans and the government they had created. During his time in prison, much had changed. Sunni tribesmen had grown weary of both the bloodshed and the strict Islamic fundamentalism pushed by al Qaeda. The “Awakening” movement among Sunnis combined with the American “surge” to put al Qaeda on the ropes. The survivors were rethinking the whole strategy of fighting Shi’ites instead of just the Americans, who were plainly eager to get out of Iraq in the near future. The newly-released Badri must have had a Rip van Winkle moment. He argued for sticking to the old course. When he saw that he wasn’t winning the argument, he started making his own contacts with the rich men in the Persian Gulf states who had funded al Qaeda. This gave him an independent source of money. He adopted the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr having been the father-in-law of Muhammad and the first Caliph.
Thereafter, Badri/Abu Bakr went on a rampage. He gathered fighters drawn to his ideas and his oratory. He moved his operations into the eastern parts of war-torn Syria, where a vacuum of power existed. Syria itself was full of jihadist enthusiasts, either Syrian ones or foreigners drawn to the struggle. Many of these fighters shifted their loyalty to what Abu Bakr now called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He emptied banks, exported oil from wells ISIS had seized, sold plundered antiquities, and taxed local people. With a huge war-chest and 10,000 enthusiastic followers, Abu Bakr set out to recreate the Caliphate.
History is unlikely to repeat itself, but there’s only one way to find out.
“The man who would be caliph,” The Week, 19 September 2014, p. 11.