Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the cunning and enigmatic black-clad leader of the Islamic State who transformed a flagging insurgency into a global terrorist network that drew tens of thousands of recruits from 100 countries, has died at 48.
His death was announced on Sunday by President Trump, who said al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest during a raid this weekend in northwestern Syria by United States Special Forces. Mr. Trump said preliminary tests had confirmed his identity.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Islamic State’s media arm, which typically is quick to claim attacks but generally takes longer to confirm the deaths of its leaders.
The son of a pious Sunni family from the Iraqi district of Samarra, al-Baghdadi parlayed religious fervor, hatred of nonbelievers and the power of the internet into the path that catapulted him onto the global stage. He commanded an organization that, at its peak, controlled a territory the size of Britain from which it directed and inspired acts of terror in more than three dozen countries.
Al-Baghdadi was the world’s most-wanted terrorist chieftain, the target of a $25 million bounty from the American government. His death followed a yearslong, international manhunt that consumed the intelligence services of multiple countries and spanned two American presidential administrations.
Al-Baghdadi evaded capture for nearly a decade by hewing to a series of extreme security measures, even when meeting with his most-trusted associates.
“They even made me remove my wristwatch,” recounted Ismail al-Ithawy, a top aide who was captured last year. He spoke from a jail in Iraq, where he has been sentenced to death.
After being stripped of electronic devices, including cellphones and cameras, Mr. al-Ithawy and others recalled, they were blindfolded, loaded onto buses and driven for hours to an unknown location. When they were finally allowed to remove their blindfolds, they would find al-Baghdadi sitting before them.
Meetings lasted between 15 and 30 minutes and the ISIS chief would leave the building first. His visitors were required to stay under armed guard for hours after his exit. Then they were once again blindfolded and driven back to their original point of departure, according to aides who saw him in three of the past five years.
“Baghdadi’s concern was always: Who will betray him? He didn’t trust anyone,” said Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman of the Iraqi Joint Operation Command.
Much of the world first learned of al-Baghdadi in 2014, when his men overran one-third of Iraq and half of neighboring Syria and declared the territory a caliphate, claiming to revive the Muslim theocracy that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The move distinguished the Islamic State from Al Qaeda, the older Islamist terrorist group under whose yoke al-Baghdadi’s men had operated for nearly a decade in Iraq before violently breaking away.
Although Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda leader, had dreamed of restoring the caliphate, he was reluctant to declare one, perhaps fearing the overwhelming military response that eventually cost al-Baghdadi his territory.
Yet it took five years before troops seized in March the last acre of land under al-Baghdadi’s rule. And in the interim, the promise of a physical caliphate electrified tens of thousands of followers who flocked to Syria to serve his imagined state.
At its peak, the group’s black flag flew over major population centers, including the Iraqi city of Mosul, with a population of 1.4 million.
Its territory spread east into the plains of Nineveh, the biblical city where the extremists turned centuries-old churches into bomb factories. It reached north into the mountains of Sinjar, whose women were singled out for sexual enslavement. It extended south to the Syrian oil fields of Deir al-Zour and the majestic colonnades of Palmyra.
Acting under the orders of a “Delegated Committee” headed by al-Baghdadi, the group known variously as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh imposed its violent interpretation of Islam in these territories. Women accused of adultery were stoned to death, thieves had their hands hacked off, and men who had defied the militants were beheaded.
While some of those medieval punishments are also meted out in places like Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State shocked people around the world by televising its executions. It also offended Muslims by inventing horrific punishments that are not mentioned in Islamic scripture.
A Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a scene filmed by overhead drones. Men accused of being spies were drowned in cages, as underwater cameras captured their last tortured gasp. Others were crushed under the treads of a T-55 tank, or strung up by their feet inside a slaughterhouse and butchered like animals.
But in addition to brutality, the group also meted out services, running a state that was recognized by no one other than themselves, but which in certain categories outperformed the one it had usurped.
The Islamic State collected taxes and saw to it that the garbage was picked up. Couples who got married could expect to receive a marriage license printed on Islamic State stationery. Once children of those unions were born, their birth weight was duly recorded on an ISIS-issued birth certificate. The group even ran its own D.M.V.
For a group intent on re-establishing a theocracy from the Middle Ages, the Islamic State was very much a creature of its time. The militants harnessed the internet to connect with thousands of followers around the globe, making them feel as if they were virtual citizens of the caliphate.
The message of these new jihadists was clear, and many of those on whose ears it fell found it emboldening: Anyone, anywhere, could act in the group’s name. That allowed ISIS to multiply its lethality by remotely inspiring attacks, carried out by men who never set foot in a training camp.
In this fashion, ISIS was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people around the world. A shooting at an office party in San Bernardino, Calif. An attack on a Christmas market in Germany. A truck attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day. Suicide bombings at churches on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.
In many instances, the attackers left behind recordings, social media posts or videos pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
“Baghdadi was central to giving voice to ISIS’ project in a manner that achieved startling resonance with vulnerable individuals globally,” said Joshua Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council until 2017.
“He will remain a singular figure in the group’s emergence and evolution,” Mr. Geltzer said.
Born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began life in a dry and desolate plain in the village of Al Jallam in central Iraq. He was one of five sons and several daughters of a conservative Sunni man who eked out a living selling sheep.
Neighbors described the family as average, and the area as unremarkable.
But one detail stands out in al-Baghdadi’s early story, and it would later become a key element in his claim to be a caliph or religious ruler: Al Jallam is populated by members of the al-Badri tribe, which traces its lineage to the Quraysh people of the Arabian Peninsula — the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad.
A hereditary connection to the Quraysh is regarded as a prerequisite for becoming a caliph, and pamphlets published by ISIS exhorting Muslims to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi trace his ancestry from the Badri community in Al Jallam to Fatima, the youngest daughter of the prophet.
By the time al-Baghdadi began elementary school, the family had moved to the nearby city of Samarra. He was a mediocre student. His high school transcript shows that his highest grade was in art (95 out of 100), while in core subjects like algebra, he mustered scores in the low 50s.
In interviews with 17 people who knew al-Baghdadi, including friends, classmates, neighbors, teachers and former pupils, he was described as “shy,” “reserved,” “isolated” and “quiet.” He found his place, they said, at the local mosque, where his father enrolled him in a Quranic memorization class.
“Yes, he had a spiritual gift,” said the owner of the Ahmed Ibn Hanbal mosque, Khalid Ahmed Ismael, adding, “His soul was connected to the mosque.”
Mr. Ismael recalled how, without being prompted, al-Baghdadi — a nom de guerre he adopted when he became a militant — would lead the other boys in cleaning the house of worship, dragging the carpets outside, hosing them down and placing them on the roof to dry.
And he quickly outdid the other boys in the memorization and recitation of scripture. By the time he was in high school, congregants began asking for the boy to lead the prayer in the imam’s place.
“That’s how sweet his voice was,” Mr. Ismael said. “It was so sweet that you could feel the sweetness and it would attract others into the mosque.”
But already there were signs that al-Baghdadi saw his conservative approach to faith as one that should be imposed on others.
When a neighbor got a tattoo of a heart on his arm, al-Baghdadi lectured him. Tattoos, the neighbor, Younes Taha, recalled him saying, are forbidden under Islamic law. Soon, he even felt comfortable reproaching his mentors.
“When you stand up and recite the prayer, the smell of your breath will make the angels fly away,” he reportedly told Mr. Ismael when the mosque owner began smoking.
At age 20, in 1991, he enrolled in the Shariah college of Baghdad University, according to school records obtained by The New York Times from Iraq’s intelligence agency.
He earned a bachelor’s degree and then enrolled at Saddam University, an institution dedicated to Islamic studies where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in topics related to Islamic scripture.
To pay for his studies, he taught Quranic classes at al-Haj Zaidan Mosque in the Topchi neighborhood of Baghdad, where his pupils referred to him as “Sheikh Ibrahim.” Those who interacted with him described him as taciturn and reserved, a quality that impressed his students.
“When I asked him, ‘Sheikh Ibrahim, I have a question for you,’ he would answer just the question and nothing more,” said the mosque’s current imam, Ahmed Rajab, who was al-Baghdadi’s pupil in the early 2000s. “We would try to get him to talk to us. He didn’t gossip. His reserve came from his self-discipline.”
But outside the mosque, some began to be bothered by his proselytizing.
On weekends, he coached a youth soccer team, using practices as an opportunity to hand out pamphlets advocating the ultraconservative Wahhabi strain of Islam.
“We were like: ‘Why? We’re here to play soccer.’ I just took it and threw it away,” recalled Faisal Ghazi Taih, one of the former players. His parents pulled him off the team when they found out, he said.
In 2003, as military jets sliced the sky over Baghdad and the American invasion to topple Saddam Hussein began, al-Baghdadi told his students at the mosque in Topchi that he was heading home.
Less than a year later, Mr. Taha was watching TV when he suddenly recognized his former neighbor in footage showing detainees arrested by American forces. They were lined up in orange jumpsuits, the same color that Western hostages of ISIS would later be forced to wear in their execution videos.
Security officials say that al-Baghdadi was arrested near Falluja at the home of his in-laws in January 2004.
The target of the raid was al-Baghdadi’s brother-in-law, who had taken up arms against the American occupation. Al-Baghdadi was swept up in the raid, considered little more than a hanger-on at that point, officials said. He spent 11 months in a detention center at Camp Bucca, according to declassified Pentagon records.
Some analysts have argued that it was his time in American custody that radicalized him. Those who were imprisoned alongside him, however, say he was already committed to violence when he entered the sprawling prison camp.
Talib al-Mayahi, now 54, met al-Baghdadi inside the tent where they were both assigned at Camp Bucca. Al-Baghdadi was in his 30s and went by the nom de guerre “Abu Dua,” recalled his fellow detainee, who is under a form of witness protection in Iraq and was interviewed in the presence of intelligence agents.
The prisoners inside the camp were beginning to organize, appointing secret “emirs” of each tent, Mr. al-Mayahi said, and al-Baghdadi was chosen to lead his. He immediately set to work driving Shiite prisoners from the tent, leaning on a gang of fellow Sunni prisoners, armed with shanks made from the metal mined from the camp’s air-conditioning units, Mr. al-Mayahi said.
Hatred of the Shiites was a hallmark of the insurgency that was sweeping across Iraq. Their places of worship began to be targeted in a move that was criticized even by Al Qaeda. Later, it would become a hallmark of the Islamic State, whose followers began targeting the sect throughout the world, dispatching suicide bombers to Shiite sites in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran and Bangladesh.
“It got to the point where Shiite prisoners would ask to be transferred to another tent,” Mr. al-Mayahi said. “Then when there were no Shiite left, he began threatening fellow Sunnis: Why are you smoking? How come you didn’t show up to prayer? Why is your beard so short?”
Pentagon records indicate that al-Baghdadi was released in late 2004, a failure of intelligence that would come to haunt American officials.
“It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS,” a Pentagon official told The Times a decade later.
For years, he disappeared from view. Then in 2009, security forces recovered a cache of documents in a safe house used by the militants and found the name “Abu Dua” on the group’s personnel list.
His clout inside the terrorist group did not become clear until months later, when security forces captured a senior leader of the insurgency, said Abu Ali al-Basri, the director general of Iraqi intelligence.
At a checkpoint in Baghdad in March of 2010, Iraqi agents arrested Manaf al-Rawi, believed to be one of the executioners of an American contractor, Nick Berg, whose videotaped beheading was posted on the internet. Under interrogation, Mr. al-Rawi named “Abu Dua,” as one of the group’s coordinators, tasked with passing secret messages between the insurgents.
“I directly sent word to the prime minister with the names of three people we deemed important based on the interrogation of Manaf al-Rawi,” Mr. al-Basri said. “One of the three was Baghdadi.”
Not long after, in May of 2010, the insurgents announced their new leader: It was Abu Dua, who now introduced himself to the world as “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
The meaning of the new nom de guerre was not lost on his future followers: Abu Bakr was the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in ancient Arabia and is credited with the wave of Islamic expansion that followed.
For the next three years, Mr. al-Basri’s agents hunted al-Baghdadi, setting up at least six stings to arrest him.
There were numerous near-misses, he claims, saying they came close to catching him in the Baghdad district of Mansour, then in Adamiya, where he was spotted driving. On another occasion, they got a tip that he was driving to the town of Ghazaliya to meet with a Qaeda operative.
And in Topchi, near the mosque where his voice used to call the faithful to prayer, they laid an ambush. Somehow, he managed to get away.
“At that point, he was more lucky than he was smart,” Mr. al-Basri said.
But with each close call, al-Baghdadi became more circumspect, more obsessed with security and more untrusting. He is believed to have stopped using cellphones more than a decade ago, relying exclusively on hand-delivered messages, Mr. al-Basri said.
In 2014, when he ascended the marbled pulpit of a mosque in Mosul to declare the caliphate, it was the first time a video appeared that showed his face uncovered.
Al-Baghdadi’s reclusiveness fed rumors of his demise, with many news outlets carrying speculative reports of his death, all of which proved to be untrue. Each time, he resurfaced in audio recordings, and later videos, thumbing his nose at the world.
American officials who worked in the Obama administration say that for all of 2014, 2015 and 2016 there was not a single time when they believed they had solid intelligence about al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts, even as numerous other senior Islamic State leaders were hunted down and killed, including al-Baghdadi’s No. 2.
But unlike Osama bin Laden, al-Baghdadi was no recluse.
Bin Laden walled himself off from the world in a compound in Pakistan in an effort to avoid detection and operated as a distant manager. Al-Baghdadi, by contrast, was directly involved in some of his group’s most notorious atrocities, including the organized rape of women considered to be nonbelievers.
One of them was D, who was just 15 years old when she was kidnapped alongside other Yazidi women and girls from her village at the foot of Mount Sinjar a few weeks after the declaration of the caliphate. Interviewed after her escape, she asked to be identified by only her first initial because of the stigma of rape, and described how the women and girls were transported to a building in Raqqa, which acted as a viewing gallery for the men wishing to enslave them.
The first man to come in was al-Baghdadi, she said, information that was confirmed by two other girls who were held at the same facility.
“I noticed right away that he was important — everybody stood up when he walked in,” D said.
She and the other girls he chose were moved from house to house, eventually ending up in the same villa as 26-year-old American aid worker Kayla Mueller of Prescott, Ariz. All of them were taken out and raped by al-Baghdadi, including Ms. Mueller, who returned to their shared room sobbing unconsolably, according to the account of survivors that was confirmed by American officials and Ms. Mueller’s mother.
Al-Baghdadi took pleasure in brutality, the women held captive said.
One day in August 2014, D was summoned to see him. Fearing she was about to be raped again, she was surprised when al-Baghdadi took her into the living room, not the bedroom, and asked her to sit next to him on a couch.
“He had a big, black laptop,” she said, recalling how he hit “play” on a video on the screen. It showed the execution of an American journalist, James Foley.
“He told us, ‘We killed this man today,’” she said. “He was laughing at our reaction.”
Some who knew al-Baghdadi the longest wondered if it was his very nature that accounted for his ability to evade capture for so long, and not just his extreme security measures.
Hussam Mehdi, an ISIS member who first met al-Baghdadi at Camp Bucca and is now in jail in Baghdad, said his enduring memory of the man who would become one of the world’s most powerful terrorists was of him walking back and forth along the fence line — by himself.
“It’s something I have wondered about: a man who was totally alone, a person who doesn’t socialize, just ‘salaam alaikum,’ and then moves on,” Mr. Mehdi said. “I wonder if it’s because he likes to be alone that isolation came easily to him.”
Mr. Mehdi thought back to the men who had come before al-Baghdadi at the helm of the Islamic State.
“Abu Musab was killed,” he said. “Abu Omar was killed. But Abu Bakr lasted.”