According to a new in-depth report in The Telegraph, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was once a skilled soccer player before turning to extremism and rising in the ranks of the Iraq Al Qaeda affiliate.
The London-based paper tells the unlikely story of a once reserved, scholarly man with a passion for soccer, called the “Messi of our team” by another former player for their local mosque’s team, referring to Argentine star Lionel Messi.
Baghdadi has taken a prominent position in world politics a week after his jihadist group dropped the geographic qualifiers from its name and declared a reborn caliphate under the name Islamic State. On Saturday, a 21-minute-long video surfaced that purported to show Baghdadi praising their success.
But the authenticity of that video hasn’t been verified yet, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Pictures and details of Baghdadi’s life have remained elusive.
According to The Telegraph, however, Baghdadi hails from the Sunni town of Smarra in northern Iraq. He spent much of his younger years prior to the U.S. invasion living in modest circumstances as “a shy religious scholar who eschewed violence.”
His birth name was Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri and he would go on to earn a Ph.D. at the Islamic University in Baghdad.
“We’d play football,” Abu Ali, Baghdadi’s former teammate told The Telegraph. “In Saddam’s time we’d all travel to places outside Baghdad, such as Anbar district, for picnics, or we’d go swimming.”
As we reported yesterday, Baghdadi was held by American forces in Iraq from 2005 until his release in 2009. The Telegraph quotes Colonel Kenneth King, who was the detention camp’s commanding officer at the time, as saying that Baghdadi “was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.”
In fact, according to the paper and adding some additional context to Baghdadi’s farewell line, “I’ll see you in New York,” that we reported in our original story, the guards at the camp “did not even register his parting comment… as threatening.”
The video was a marked shift in Baghdadi’s public persona after years of keeping a very low profile. As the New York Times pointed out, it was in fact a stark contrast from other jihadists of the past, as the man now calling himself “Khalifa Ibrahim” (Caliph Abraham) “delivered a public sermon in a city once under American control with an audacity that even Osama bin Laden never tried.”
The sermon took place in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq now under militant control since government forces retreated last month.
In the sermon, Baghdadi appealed to his followers as well as others that might join their cause.
“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” he said, according to a translation from SITE Intelligence Group. “I was placed as your caretaker, and I am not better than you. So if you found me to be right then help me, and if you found me to be wrong then advise me and make me right.”
While Baghdadi did not reference his soccer-playing past, he did apparently draw some criticism for wearing what appeared to be “either a Rolex, Sekonda or £3,500 Omega seamaster,” according to The Telegraph‘s Oliver Duggan, in a separate report.
Regardless, the video appears to indicate that Baghdadi is trying to take a larger role in the Islamist movement.
“If Baghdadi has emerged from hiding, it suggests that he is adopting a posture as a different kind of leader from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the like, and by implication a greater one,” former State Department official Daniel Benjamin told the Times.
[photo: Jihad Watch]