The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis and the self-declared caliph of Islamic State, will be a serious, though not terminal, blow to the ferocious jihadi movement he has headed since 2010.
The place where he was finally located – in the Barisha area north of Idlib city in northwest Syria, close to the Turkish border – came as a surprise. It was assumed that he was hiding somewhere in the desert in the Syrian-Iraq border region where the remnants of Isis still have some bases.
Isis has not had direct control in the Idlib region for several years and it is rival jihadi groups, supposedly hostile to Isis, who rule an extensive region centred on Idlib province. It is possible that Baghdadi, who has only survived for so long through rigorous security measures, chose his final hiding place there for this very reason.
Baghdadi remains a mysterious figure in death as in life because it has never been clear to what degree the resurgence of Isis – known previously as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – after 2011 was his doing.
His real name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai and he was born into a pious Sunni Arab family in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971. Imprisoned by US forces in 2004, he was not considered a significant resistance figure and was released after ten months.
He became leader of ISI in 2010 after the death of his predecessors in a US airstrike. At the time the movement had retreated to its areas of core support in and around Mosul and to rural regions where al-Qaeda in Iraq had always been strong. It retained more strength than its many enemies realised and had plenty of military experience drawn from the 2004-9 war against the US and Iraqi government forces.
The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, notably in Syria, presented Baghdadi and ISI with an opportunity for swift expansion as the Syrian government lost control of large parts of the country. Al-Baghdadi sent seasoned militants and fighters, money and weapons to establish Jabhat al-Nusra as the leading rebel organisation, though its dependence on ISI was at first kept secret.
The link between the two was only revealed in 2013 when al-Baghdadi tried to reassert his authority over al-Nusra, which had been highly successful in spreading its rule in Syria. When part of al-Nusra rejected this, Baghdadi deposed its leaders, fought an inter-jihadi civil war and later broke with al-Qaeda, establishing Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
In Iraq, Baghdadi was fortunate in his opportunities as the Sunni Arab community was increasingly alienated by a sectarian Shia government which ignored or suppressed its protests. The Iraqi army and security forces were degraded by extreme corruption and the weeding out of competent commanders.
Even so, the world was astonished when Isis captured Mosul in June 2014 and Baghdadi named himself caliph of the newly-founded Islamic State. A hundred days of runaway victories by Isis forces in Iraq and Syria followed, its fighters advancing against little resistance to Tikrit, north of Baghdad, and to Palmyra, east of Damascus.
As Isis fighters established a state which, at its greatest extent, was the same size as Great Britain, they massacred Shia and Yazidis, publicising their atrocities by video. The purpose of this savagery was extreme sectarianism combined with a determination to spread terror among its opponents and sap their will to resist.
This ferocious cruelty towards all those not supporting the Islamic State was typical of al-Baghdadi’s rule: the world was divided into light and darkness and only Isis stood in the light. This approach was effective in motivating fanatical Isis fighters but ensured that everybody outside Isis was a satanic enemy to be destroyed. Eventually, the caliph was at war with the whole world – Syrian government and Syrian opposition, Russia and America, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He may have led Isis to great and unexpected victories, but he also ensured its defeat.
His military forces – essentially skilled light infantry supplemented with the mass use of suicide bombers – were outgunned and outnumbered. In 2014, the separatist Kurds in Iraq and Syria would have preferred to stay neutral, but Isis attacked them anyway. This brought in the US as a combatant and Isis’s military forces were relentlessly targeted by the air power of the US-led coalition. Its last victories were won in 2015, when it took Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria but after that the caliphate was battered to pieces by superior forces over the following two years.
Baghdadi is believed to have escaped from Mosul during a surprise attack on besieging forces from inside the city in early 2017, but his location was always elusive. The decisive military defeat for Isis came later the same year with the fall, after long sieges, of Mosul and Raqqa. Baghdadi made occasional recorded inspirational addresses but had no answer to the crumbling of his caliphate other than to encourage terror attacks on civilian targets abroad from Manchester to Colombo.
He was repeatedly reported to be dead or injured but would re-emerge, most recently in a video this April. Isis was reverting to a guerrilla role, hoping to repeat its extraordinary resurrection between 2011 and 2014. But the fear that Isis had inspired at the height of its success meant that governments were unlikely to be caught by surprise a second time. It also seemed inevitable, once Isis had lost its last territory earlier this year, that Baghdadi could not evade his pursuers forever.