The Man Behind the Caliphate

When ISIS was disenfranchised by Al-Qaeda, many pundits predicted that the group would become a shadow of its former self. What many of those pundits failed to consider was the charismatic power wielded by the mysterious figure behind the world's most powerful terrorist army.

While Osama Bin Laden was a charismatic orator, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri is more of a theologian, and does not posses overly-motivating oratory skills. Moreover, Osama languished in obscurity, existing in the mind of his followers as merely a media personality that would periodically deliver videos; and during his last years audio tapes.

Zawahiri has followed in the detached, distant mold of his predecessor. Both men are, after all, top targets of the world's last superpower, so it only stands to reason that they would want to remain as isolated from ground action as possible.

Not so with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a man who was imprisoned at the height of the US occupation of Iraq. At the time of his incarceration at Camp Bucca, Caliph Ibrahim -- as al-Baghdadi is now referred to by his followers -- was deemed to be merely a low-level operative, someone that the US didn't particularly need to keep under tight "surveillance."

The public doesn't exactly know what happened to Caliph Ibrahim while he was incarcerated, but it is clear that he made lots of friends, plenty of them former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, and who now form the core of his military power -- many are colonels and lieutenants.

In the same way that California's prisons segregate individuals by ethnic group or by gang affiliation, so did America's prisons in Iraq segregate prisoners by ideology and ethnicity. In the end, America's prisons serve as academies for terrorists and criminals, where they go to become more dangerous and radicalized. America's prisons have a recidivism rate of over 70% when it concerns violent crime, yet the George W. Bush administration decided to implement the same policies in the land the US Army had just invaded.

Mosul, Iraq
Caliph Ibrahim is the star recidivist, proof of what the brutality of US prisons have done for the world. The Caliph doesn't follow in the mold of Bin Laden and Zawahiri... the man takes part in the fighting, according to his followers. After the takeover of Mosul, Iraq this past summer, the Caliph made his first public appearance.

Al-Qaeda has never been able to project power to the Muslim world at the level that Caliph Ibrahim can, appearing in a city of two million and delivering a sermon in its biggest mosque.

The speech begins at around 12:20
A 21-minute video released by the Islamic State is proof of how firmly the group has established its control over Mosul.  The video begins with the Caliph slowly climbing the stairs to the pulpit. Once he reaches the top, he greets everyone and sits down. A nasheed is overheard on the speakers for three minutes, building anticipation for the sermon. The song praises the basic tenets of Islam while the figure in black cleans his teeth and lips with a miswak, a traditional Islamic alternative to the toothbrush.

Machine gun ready
The camera pans around the mosque, and regular worshipers are visible. Next to a column there is a man in black holding a machine gun, his face is not visible and he appears ready to start firing his weapon at any moment. He is to the right of the Caliph, and appears to be responsible for the last line of protection.

Shifty eyes
On the other side of the column is a man in a headscarf, and he is the only one besides the bodyguard in black who appears to be armed. His face is visible, he seems to be a trusted member of the Caliph's inner circle.

The Caliph then rises and begins exulting Islam, saying that the most dangerous things are "newly invented matters" and that the greatness of fasting and Ramadan would enable all true followers to cleanse themselves of their sins during a month which "brings the opening of the doors of eternal paradise and the shutting of the doors of hellfire and the jailing of devils."

Throughout the speech, his left hand remains at his side, while his right hand moves in an almost methodical manner starting 5 minutes into the speech.

The man in the headscarf scans the room
The figure in black spends the first 7 minutes of his speech exalting the Koran and how it urges its followers to fight in defense of Allah and for the glory of the religion, only thereafter bringing the issue of his jihad and caliphate into the speech.

"I've been tested by Allah in my election as caliph. It's a heavy burden. I'm no better than you," he says.

He then quotes the Koran: "He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, for they worship Me... So do not weaken and do not grieve, and you will be superior if you are true believers... Believe in Allah and His Messenger and strive in the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives... He will forgive for you your sins and admit you to gardens beneath which rivers flow and pleasantness dwells in gardens of perpetual essence . That is the great attainment."

16 minutes into the video, the sermon ends and the Caliph descends to lead prayers. As he passes through the entrance to the pulpit, an IS guard waits to his left, following him when he turns to the right.

The video then cuts to outside shots of the mosque, before switching back to the Caliph leading prayers.

It appears that to stand behind the Caliph, one must be a trusted member of a highly secretive circle; the faces of all the men praying behind the Caliph are blurred.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has come a long way: from an American prison in Iraq to
leading a bona fide proto-state. Although previous insurgent Islamists have preferred to keep a low profile, Caliph Ibrahim has a different management style.

He travels well protected -- cell phone networks went down in Mosul during his visit. His speaking style is often emotionless, at times energetic, and he preaches flawlessly and at length in a single breath. No Western politician could get behind a podium and speak with the energy and speed that Caliph Ibrahim commands, lest a comparison be drawn to Hitler.

And indeed, I do not understand Arabic nor German, but when I watch a speech by Hitler, I get the sense of a man who has mastered the art of transferring emotions and ideas. Caliph Ibrahim appears to have mastered the same art.