Whether you call them ISIL as President Obama does or ISIS as many of us know them, the group is considered a threat certainly in the Middle East and possibly here at home.
So who is the man, nicknamed the “Invisible Sheik,” leading this terrorist organization?
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a wanted man. There is a $10 million dollar reward to bring him to justice for his crimes like the beheading of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the massacre of Iraqi security forces and religious minorities like Shiites and Yazidis as his militants march to Bagdad.
Dr. Aminah McCloud, a professor of Islamic studies at Depaul says al-Baghdadi slaughters Muslims because they don’t agree with him.
“The brutality that they’ve shown has shown much of the world that they’re thugs and criminals and have to be treated as thugs and criminals,” McCloud says.
Yet 43-year-old Baghdadi claims he is the caliph, the leader of all Muslims.
It’s a far cry from his humble beginnings. He’s believed to have been born in Samarra, north of Bagdad.
WGN’s Terrorist Analyst Tom Mockaitis is an expert in terrorism and says Baghdadi, which means “of Baghdad,” isn’t even his real name.
“If you Google his name, they’ll tell you we think he was born in 1971 somewhere near Samarra. They don’t even have good information on that,” Mockaitis says.
Foreign news reports say Baghdadi has a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Bagdad and worked as preacher in his home town. His family is Sufi – ironically, a version of Islam considered more accepting of other religions.
In 2003, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq for allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction. At some point Baghdadi took up with the wrong crowd, was scooped up, and imprisoned by American forces at Camp Bucca.
The detention center was named for a firefighter who lost his life in 9-11. It was there some say Baghdadi turned more radical, looking for like-minded allies in prison.
“He was not a significant individual. He became one,” says Mockaitis. “I think the real advantage of prison for him is the same thing that it provides for criminals here. It’s the university for crime. In this case it’s the university for terrorism. In prison, he was able to re-build his network by identifying the people he wanted to recruit later on.”
When he was released, Baghdadi worked his way up through the ranks of al-Qaida. He became so extreme that even that terrorist group reportedly kicked him out leaving him to form his own group ISIS.
So did we create a monster?
“Yes and no,” Mockaitis says. “It’s very easy to blame us and to some degree it’s true. If we hadn’t gone in and taken out Saddam then the power vacuum wouldn’t existed. On the other hand, we gave the government of Bagdad more than a fighting chance to make a go of it.”
Today, many of Baghdadi’s soldiers are made up of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s personal army.