THE FBI “most wanted” mugshot shows a tough, swarthy figure, his hair in a jailbird crew-cut. The $10 million price on his head, meanwhile, suggests that whoever released him from US custody four years ago may now be regretting it.
Taken during his years as a detainee at the US-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, this is the only known photograph of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. But while he may lack the photogenic qualities of his hero, Osama bin Laden, he is fast becoming the new poster-boy for the global jihadist movement.
Well-organised and utterly ruthless, the ex-preacher is the driving force behind al-Qaeda’s resurgence throughout Syria and Iraq, putting it at the forefront of the war to topple President Bashar al-Assad and starting a fresh campaign of mayhem against the Western-backed government in Baghdad.
Last week, his forces fought open clashes with Iraqi army troops around the city of Fallujah – once known as the graveyard of the Americans – after brazenly attempting to seize control there the weekend before.
“They turned up in convoys waving their black flags and saying that Fallujah belongs to al-Qaeda again,” said Ayad Dulaimi, a local resident. “With God’s help, the army will destroy them.”
For Washington, the fact that it is now Iraqi troops who are confronting Baghdadi’s fanatics rather than American ones is of limited comfort. For just like bin Laden, whose death he has vowed to avenge, his ambitions go well beyond the Middle East.
“You will see the mujahideen (holy warriors) at the heart of your country,” he warned the US in an audio-taped statement. “Our war with you has only started now.”
His attempted take-over of Fallujah and neighbouring Ramadi has also sparked bitter exchanges in Washington over the legacy of the Iraq war. As President Barack Obama flew back from his Christmas break in Hawaii last week, he faced accusations that he had squandered US sacrifices in Iraq through his decision to withdraw troops two years ago.
The charge was led by Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, who pointed out that hundreds of US troops had died during operations to keep Fallujah free of al-Qaeda. “Now we see people driving around Fallujah with black flags,” Senator McCain said. “It’s a disgrace.”