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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: A trail of horror and death

Baghdad: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi jihadist who rose from obscurity to declare himself ‘caliph’ of all Muslims as the leader of Islamic State, has been targeted in a US military operation in Syria. He has long been a target for US and regional security forces trying to eliminate Islamic State, even as they reclaimed most of the territory the group once held.

The IS or caliphate that Baghdadi declared in July 2014 over a quarter of Iraq and Syria was notable for atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of a version of an ultra-fanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims. The genocide of Yazidis, adherents of one of the Middle East’s oldest religions, illustrated the brutality of his rule. Thousands of men were slaughtered on their ancestral Sinjar mountain in northwestern Iraq and women were killed or taken as sex slaves. Some other religious groups suffered sexual slavery, slaughter and floggings. Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai in 1971 in Tobchi, a poor area near the town of Samarra, north of Baghdad, whose name he took. His family includes preachers from the ultra-conservative Salafi school of Sunni Islam, which sees many other branches of the faith as heretical and other religions as anathema. He joined the Salafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and was captured by the Americans. They released him about a year later, thinking he was a civilian agitator rather than a military threat.

It was not until July 4, 2014, that he seized the world’s attention, climbing the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval al-Nuri mosque in black clerical garb during Friday prayers to announce the restoration of the caliphate. “God ordered us to fight his enemies,” he said in a video of the occasion, which presented him as “Caliph Ibrahim, commander of the faithful”. Thousands of volunteers flocked into Iraq and Syria from around the world to become “Jund al-Khilafa” — soldiers of the caliphate and join him in his fight against the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government and its US and Western allies.

At the height of its power in 2016, IS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad. The group claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in dozens of cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in nearby Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In Iraq, it staged dozens of attacks on predominantly Shi’ite Muslim areas. A truck bomb in July 2016 killed more than 324 people in Baghdad.

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