The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd

He controls 34,000 square miles of territory—an area the size of Costa Rica. He commands an army larger than Belgium’s and perhaps larger than Canada’s. He has a $2-billion budget at his disposal. He reigns over a population of more than 2 million people.[1]Indeed, he is the self-styled leader of a new state, which has a major export (9,000 barrels of oil per day) and a capital (the Syrian city of Raqqa). He’s at war with some of the world’s largest, richest, most advanced powers—and he’s more than holding his own. In fact, Forbesmagazine ranks him the 54th most-powerful person in the world.

His name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ultraviolent political-spiritual-military leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (known as ISIS, ISIL and IS). His story is at once horrific and tragic.


Born in Iraq around 1971 and given the name Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri,[2] Baghdadi was apprehended by U.S. forces in Fallujah in 2004, during Iraq’s postwar insurgency. He was held for some period of time—some reports say four years, some say less—in a U.S. prison facility in southern Iraq.[3]

While detained, Baghdadi made connections and laid the groundwork for the ruthless killing machine that would become ISIS. The U.S. prison “was like a summer camp for ambitious terrorists,” a Newsweekaccount of Baghdadi details. “The inmates interacted, traded information and battle tactics, and made important contacts for the future.”[4]

At some point in the course of transferring sovereignty back to the Iraqi government, Baghdadi appears to have been entrusted to Iraq’s civilian authorities, who released him.[5]

That’s the first tragic element of Baghdadi’s story and the first missed opportunity.

The second relates to the big picture in Iraq and Syria. Let’s start with Iraq.

As the surge took hold and turned the tide in Iraq—eviscerating al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), persuading former insurgents to become part of the solution, stabilizing Iraq’s politics, and rescuing Iraq from civil war and America from defeat—most observers thought the United States and Iraq would renew the status of forces of agreement (SOFA) to authorize a residual U.S. presence in Iraq. As Vice President Joe Biden said, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [former Iraqi prime minister] will extend the SOFA.”[6] Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.”[7]

But President Barack Obama demanded that the new SOFA be blessed by the Iraqi parliament, rather than simply signed by the Iraqi government;[8] proposed a residual force of just 3,000 troops; and made it clear he was willing to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, a timetable set by the Bush administration.[9] When Maliki balked, as Kagan reported at the time, the White House went forward with the zero option “despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”

Kagan and others who advocated keeping U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011 feared that Iraq was not ready to stand on its own. But for the president, ending U.S. involvement in Iraq was a promise to be kept. After all, the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy platform as a candidate—indeed the very fuel for his White House run—was always the withdrawal from Iraq. If nothing else, his critics should give him credit for keeping his word.

Hence, there was nothing surprising about his impatience with Maliki, decision to follow the Bush administration’s timeline or eagerness to bring America’s war in Iraq to a close. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the results:

·         In October 2011, Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army warned, “Our forces are good but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone.”[10]

·         In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan worried, “Without all the enablers we provide, there’s no doubt there will be less capability than there is right now,” adding that if Iraqi troops prove unable to put pressure on jihadist groups, “they could regenerate.”[11]

·         In 2012, the remnants of AQI “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported.[12] By 2014, Baghdadi and ISIS declared independence from al Qaeda.[13]

·         In summer 2013, Iraq officially began asking for help against Baghdadi and jihadist spillovers from Syria, making urgent requests for American assets to hit terrorist camps.[14]

·         In February 2014, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee that ISIS operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghadi…to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.” That same month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that “the protracted civil war in Syria is destabilizing Iraq.”[15]

That brings us to the other part of the big picture. ISIS has thrived on the symbiotic chaos in Iraq and Syria, usingthe unchecked Syrian civil war as feedstock for its rise. This explains why so many policymakers (including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey) advocated sending arms to weaken Syria’s Bashar Assad and forestall the radicalization of his opposition.[16]

As Clinton recently argued, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”[17]

Even so, it pays to recall that Obama’s reticence reflected the national mood. Unlike 2003, when the American people and Congress strongly supported regime change in Iraq, there was no consensus to stay in Iraq in 2011, or intervene in Syria in 2013, or return to Iraq in 2014. In other words, if the president deserves criticism for engaging Syria too late and withdrawing from Iraq too early, he deserves credit for reversing course and blunting the ISIS advance.


In a region full of bad guys, Baghdadi is arguably the worst.

·         In its initial sweep into Iraq, Baghdadi’s army massacred 1,700 unarmed Iraqi soldiers near Tikrit;[18]summarily executed 510 Shiite prisoners in Mosul; shelled “apostate” homes in Dhuluiya and Zowiya; and ordered Christians to convert, make extortion payments or die.

·         ISIS has beheaded aid workers, executed American civilians, burned POWs alive and crucified captured enemy soldiers.[19]

·         ISIS is especially barbaric in its treatment of children and women. ISIS has subjected Yazidi women to “systematic rape and sex slavery,” according the Kurdish government. ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight, executed children as young as 10, flogged children as young as 14 and sold children into slavery.[20] Perhaps most shocking and shameful of all, the UN reports that ISIS has used “mentally challenged” children as suicide bombers.[21]

·         In February 2015, ISIS orchestrated a mass-beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians captured in Libya.[22]

These Attila-the-Hun tactics have a power all their own, inflating ISIS into an invincible, inevitable force—and leaving Baghdadi in control of vast swaths of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria, along with a network of transportation arteries between Baghdad and the Iraq-Syria border.

Baghdadi’s means and ends have gotten the world’s attention—and done the impossible. After all, ISIS has united Shiites and Sunnis, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus, Persians and Arabs, Kurds and Turks, postmodern Europeans and pre-modern tribesmen, liberal democracies like America and Australia and revisionist autocracies like Russia and Egypt, reactionary Sunni monarchies like Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shiite theocracies like Iran, technocracies like the European Union and gangster regimes like Syria, into the strangest enemy-of-my-enemy coalition in history.

Sometimes overtly, sometimes tacitly, sometimes purposely, sometimes coincidentally, the members of this de facto alliance are cooperating to dismantle Baghdadi’s machinery of murder.


The fight against Baghdadi is not about oil or democracy or even noble notions of standing up for civilization. It’s about protecting America and its interests. If you doubt this, consider what national-security leaders have said.

Baghdadi’s jihadist state, the president concludes, “threatens American personnel and facilities located in the region…If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.”[23]

“The most immediate threat to U.S. national interests is ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter concludes.[24]

Or consider what Baghdadi himself has said.

Like America’s paranoid World War II foes, he believes his people are under attack everywhere—listing China, India, “Palestine,” Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, “Sham” (Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and “the West” by name—and he delights in war. “Soldiers of the Islamic State,” he howls, “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.”

Like America’s Cold War enemy, he hates freedom and wants to upend the liberal global order. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era”—an era that will “trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy.”[25]

And like his forefather Osama bin Laden, terror is Baghdadi’s weapon of choice. “Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation and subordination.”

[1]http://www.globalfirepower.com/active-military-manpower.asp and http://warontherocks.com/2015/02/how-many-fighters-does-the-islamic-state-really-have/ and  http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/23/politics/pentagon-isis-casualties-territory/ and Andrew, Pestano, “Islamic State prepares $2 billion budget, opens bank,” UPI, January 4, 2015.

[2] Janine di Giovanni, “Who is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?” Newsweek, December 8, 2014.


[4] Janine di Giovanni, “Who is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?” Newsweek, December 8, 2014.








[12] Sam Jones, “Extreme violence lies in ISIS DNA,” Financial Times, August 20, 2014.

[13]http://www.cfr.org/iraq/islamic-state-iraq-syria/p14811 and http://www.vox.com/cards/things-about-isis-you-need-to-know/what-is-isis

[14] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-08-16/iraqi-foreign-minister-open-to-u-s-drone-strikes-on-terrorists

[15]http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/07/24/234353/obama-administration-knew-islamic.html?sp=/99/100/&ihp=1 and http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/2014%20WWTA%20SFR_SASC_11_Feb.pdf

[16]http://thehill.com/policy/international/281725-panetta-dempsey-endorsed-clinton-petraeus-plan-to-arm-syrian-rebelsand and http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-says-he-is-confident-of-congressional-backing-for-strike-on-syria/2013/09/03/aeee7e60-149e-11e3-a100-66fa8fd9a50c_story.html.





[21] CNN, “ISIS putting price tags on children, selling them as slaves, UN says,” February 6, 2015.




[25]http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4387/baghdadi-isis-caliphate and http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/13/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-idUSKCN0IX1Y120141113 and