Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has “become the leader for Muslims everywhere,” his organization said Sunday while declaring the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
A caliphate has not existed since the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924.
Only two known photos of Baghdadi are said to exist, and he does not appear in video statements common to other jihadist leaders such as the late Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Baghdadi - whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai - is believed to have been born in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971 to a “religious family,” according to a biography purporting to be written by his supporters.
The biography says he obtained a doctorate at Baghdad’s Islamic University.
He was a cleric in a mosque in his home city around the time of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled long-time President Saddam Hussein.
Some believe Baghdadi was already a militant jihadist during Hussein’s largely secular reign.
However, others say he turned towards his radical, hard-line interpretation of Islam during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention facility in Iraq.
Upon his release in 2009, Baghdadi reportedly told his captors: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”
One American jailer took this to mean that Baghdadi had “known all along that it was all essentially a joke, that he had only to wait and he would be freed to go back to what he had been doing.”
Baghdadi then joined the fledgling Islamic State of Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s successor in the war-torn country.
ISI soon became the dominant Sunni force in Iraq, known for suicide bombings, kidnappings and executions. Al-Qaeda denounced this apparent bloodthirsty streak.
In late 2011, Washington officially designated Baghdadi a “terrorist,” and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.
Baghdadi appeared to take on his tenure at ISI with enthusiasm, quickly climbing the ranks.
He was declared leader in 2010 after then-leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed by American and Iraqi forces.
When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Baghdadi saw an opportunity to expand his group.
He sent Abu Mohammed al-Golani to create the Nusra Front to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
Among the fray of seemingly countless groups battling for control of Syria, the success of the Nusra Front led Baghdadi in 2013 to move across the border and merge the groups into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In so doing, he had ignored decrees from Zawahiri that the merger was invalid and that Baghdadi should return to Iraq.
Baghdadi said in an audio recording: “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.”
Escalating tensions between their parent group, ISIS said Al-Qaeda “is no longer the base of jihad,” and its leaders “have deviated from the correct paths.”
In Feb. 2014, Al-Qaeda released a statement that “it is not linked to [ISIS], as it was not informed of its creation” and “did not accept it.”
Baghdadi’s hard-line interpretation of Islam has been enforced in towns where the group has a heavy presence.
In the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, where ISIS has complete control, heavy-handed laws abound, including corporal and capital punishment for crimes, public floggings, mandatory prayers, and total bans of alcohol and cigarettes.
Baghdadi is reportedly barely recognized even within his own organization, earning him the nickname “the invisible sheikh.”
An investigating officer in Iraq told Middle East affairs site Al-Monitor: “Many of the… members of the organization, some of them in the leadership, have either never met Baghdadi or met him while he was wearing a face cover.”
A major milestone for ISIS came in June, when the group took Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul and numerous other cities in the north of the country.
This took the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - and the international community - by surprise.
As the armies of both Maliki and Assad struggle to combat ISIS’s sweeping cross-border campaigns, many analysts say the group has far more power than Al-Qaeda ever did.
However, Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University, says ISIS could be reaching the peak of its capacity.
“As ISIS grows, it’ll be more difficult to manage and control its members. It seems to be growing quickly with the additions of deserters, criminals, hangers on, and those lost people looking for a reason to be. These aren’t exactly the easiest folks to manage,” he told Al Arabiya News.
Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service, told Agence France-Presse:
“Baghdadi has done an amazing amount - he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”