How A Nerdy Kid From Baghdad Became The Leader Of The Islamic State

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Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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Counter-terror expert Will McCants documents the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a nerdy religious kid playing soccer on the streets of Baghdad to a brutal leader of Islamic State in a detailed new account published Tuesday.

Baghdadi’s zealous devotion to his faith, family lineage and political cunning transformed him from a withdrawn child obsessed with studying to a self-proclaimed supreme leader of the Muslim world, McCants writes in the essay published by the Brookings Institution.

As a kid he spent most of his time studying his faith at a local mosque in Baghdad, where he was born to a pious man who taught Quranic recitation. Baghdadi took after his father and began leading neighborhood children in recitation of the Quran.

“He devoted countless hours to mastering the subtleties of the art, ” McCants writes. His nickname was “The Believer.” (RELATED: ISIS Chief al-Baghdadi Made It A Point To Rape Kayla Mueller)

Neighbors who knew him at the time describe him as “shy and retiring,” and he was “withdrawn,” “taciturn” and “barely audible” when he spoke. But he also developed a reputation for admonishing anyone who didn’t obey his interpretation of Islamic law.

Despite his devotion to religious scholarship, Baghdadi graduated from high school with average grades and almost failed English. As a result he couldn’t study law at university as he had planned, so he studied the Quran instead. (RELATED: ISIS Chief Says ‘Islam Is The Religion Of War’)

Baghdadi then got his master’s in his favorite subject — Quranic recitation — at an Islamic Studies University established by Saddam Hussein. Immediately after completing his thesis on an “obscure medieval text” there in 1999, he pursued his doctorate in Quranic studies.

While in grad school, his uncle persuaded him to join the Muslim Brotherhood, a sometimes violent movement dedicated to establishing states that operate under Islamic law.

Baghdadi was drawn to a violent faction of Sunnis that identified as “jihadist Salafis.” His mentor and older brother both belonged to the group, which practices a puritanical form of Sunni Islam, and he “threw himself” into their writings and tutelage.

“By 2000, Baghdadi was already spoiling for a fight,” McCants writes.

He married two women and had six kids, but wasn’t very social and spent most of his time in his home or teaching Quranic recitation to neighborhood kids. But after the U.S. defeated Saddam in 2003, he helped found an insurgent group that fought U.S. troops.

Baghdadi was arrested in 2004 and spent 10 months in a U.S. detention camp in Southern Iraq now known as an Islamic State factory. “It made us all,” McCants quotes one former inmate as saying. “It built our ideology.” New prisoners were indoctrinated and left a “burning flame,” another said.

Baghdadi went to work for al-Qaida in Syria following his release, and completed his dissertation — a commentary on a poem about how to recite the Quran. His work with al-Qaida and academic credentials won him the attention of an Islamic State commander, and he quickly rose through the ranks.

He was appointed ISIS chief in May, 2020, after the top two ISIS commanders blew themselves up rather than risk capture by U.S. troops who had found their compound.

Read McCants full account of Baghdadi’s life here. He’s the director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, and wrote an upcoming book on the Islamic State.

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