In the Syrian rebel’s telling, he’d encountered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi without even realizing it.
It was early in Syria’s civil war, he explained, before the Islamic State surged to global notoriety. The jihadist group was then still in a tenuous partnership with rebel groups such as his in an insurgency against the Bashar al-Assad regime. During occasional meetings with ISIS leaders, the rebel said, he’d noticed a quiet man who seemed to be something like a secretary. This man would serve the guests tea, then blend into the background. Only later, when the man became infamous as the world’s most wanted terrorist, did the rebel recognize him as Baghdadi.
I heard this story in the chaotic early days of the U.S. war against ISIS and never confirmed it—instead, I considered it a wartime yarn that spoke to a larger truth about Baghdadi and the group he led. The rebel’s story captured the way Baghdadi and ISIS were understood by many of their enemies: as shadowy, lurking, difficult to grasp.
ISIS was so effective at taking and maintaining control in Iraq and Syria because it operated so well in the shadows. The same calculating instincts attributed to Baghdadi in the rebel’s tale—in which the ISIS leader was apparently shrewd enough to mask his identity from his rebel allies, knowing that he would one day turn on them—helped ISIS establish a stranglehold over a large swath of territory. The same combination of careful planning and unrelenting treachery was integral to the extremist group’s rise. Its early territorial victories in Syria were not taken from Assad, but from rebel groups. And these were not opportunistic victories born from the chaos of war. As the journalist Christoph Reuter has documented, ISIS first compiled dossiers on the locals it intended to kill or co-opt: lists of powerful families and their sources of income, the names and political orientations of rebel leaders, information that could be used for blackmail. Then it would make its move.