Behind ISIS, A Masked Man Known More By Brutality Than By Name

The man who is leading the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in its offensive across Iraq is a mysterious figure. His nom de guerre is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but no one seems to agree on his real name or even what he looks like today. But he and ISIS have become a force that has taken key Iraqi cities and threatens to unleash a sectarian civil war.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The man who's leading Sunni insurgents in their offensive across Iraq is a mystery - his nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. No one seems to agree on his real name. There are only two known photographs of him. What is known is that he's been able to rally thousands of Jihadis to his cause and that cause is grandiose. He wants to create an Islamic state across Iraq and Syria, even if he has to wage a sectarian war to do so. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The last time the U.S. had tabs on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in 2010, when he was released from Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention facility in Iraq.

PATRICK JOHNSTON: What we don't know about him is a lot of what he's been doing sort of in the period from the time when the U.S. troop withdraw was complete until fairly recently.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Patrick Johnston has been studying al-Baghdadi and his group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for the RAND Corporation.

JOHNSTON: He is famous for his secrecy, reputedly wears masks, just like his fighters do, even when he's meeting with top lieutenants. So he's a very mysterious person, but he's also been a very effective leader.

TEMPLE-RASTON: An effective leader who has managed to direct his men to overrun key cities in Iraq, brutally.

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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a new video from ISIS fighters in Iraq. The man speaking is holding an AK-47 and taunting an Iraqi soldier. He slaps him on the face and tells him to repeat a slogan praising ISIS. The soldier's hands are bound behind his back. The camera zooms in on the patch on his uniform. Then the video cuts to a still photograph of the same soldier. He's been shot in the back. ISIS has put these kind of videos up all over the web. Paul Pillar is a security fellow at the Center of Security Studies at Georgetown University.

PAUL PILLAR: This is part of a phenomenon you often see in complicated internal conflicts, in which the most radical, least inhibited groups tend to do the best in a chaotic and violent situation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's part of the reasons, he says, that his Jihadis have managed to take over cities in Northern and Western Iraq. But, Pillar and others say, what is important to remember is that the ISIS offensive in Iraq is really about establishing a Sunni Muslim state, something that Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida vowed would happen someday. But al-Baghdadi is saying he will deliver on that promise now. Nelly Lahoud is a professor at West Point and part of its Combating Terrorism Center.

NELLY LAHOUD: I think al-Baghdadi wants to prove that his group lives up to its name.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

LAHOUD: I think the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Tall Afar and Beiji and others. In al-Baghdadi's mind, they are to be joined to other acquired provinces and cities in Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: These are all strategic areas that would be used to form a contiguous state that would transcend the borders of Syria and Iraq. But Lahoud says that al-Baghdadi still has a lot of work to do. He will have to make good on this promise if he wants to keep his followers.

LAHOUD: ISIS is very keen to establish itself as really the alternative to al-Qaida and it wants to win the allegiance of various other regional jihadi groups.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Baghdadi and ISIS have managed to take over areas of Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle, places where they already have a constituency. But seizing territory, Lahoud says, is different from holding it and governing it. Al-Baghdadi's place in jihadi history will depend on whether he can do those things too. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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