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Baghdadi's Role In The Modern Jihadist Movement


We have more now on the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We wanted to hear more about who he was and what he meant to the modern jihadist movement, so we've called on NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam for that. Hannah, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: So what was al-Baghdadi's role in the violent jihadist movement? What set him and the people who followed him apart?

ALLAM: Well, many extremist groups have dreamed of creating a state-like territory, where they can have their fundamentalist intolerant brand of Islam flourish, and they could live under laws that they felt were the right interpretation of Islam. But under al-Baghdadi, ISIS actually did it. He used dubious religious justifications. He invoked his ancestry. He claims lineage from Islam's Prophet Mohammed.

But perhaps most importantly, his forces captured land. And all of this came with stomach-churning brutality from ISIS soldiers, the foot soldiers of ISIS - burning people alive, sexual slavery, mass slaughters. Nothing seemed too violent or too cruel. And so this is condemned, instantly, by not only millions of mainstream Muslims, who are appalled at this distortion of their faith, but even by al-Qaida and groups like them that had prided themselves on running what they considered a more disciplined and some ways elitist movement. And then they saw themselves shown up by the firebrands of ISIS.

MARTIN: You know, in addition to what you, in my view, correctly described as a stomach-churning brutality, one of the things that you were telling us that al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State also did was amp up the propaganda campaign, that they really increased the sophistication of their propaganda efforts. Tell us more about that.

ALLAM: That's right. This is a group that really sort of created its own mythology. Here's this group breaking from the old-school jihadism of al-Qaida with its, you know, older leaders sermonizing, you know, messages getting out by hand courier from the mountains of Afghanistan and now pushing it into the digital age. And that's really where ISIS thrived.

MARTIN: This is something I asked our colleagues Daniel Estrin and Greg Myre earlier, which is what is the strategic significance of this. I'd like to ask you - as a person who covers extremist groups around the world, as your beat, is there strategic significance to this death?

ALLAM: I mean, for all that we know and have seen from ISIS, this incredible - the atrocities, these propaganda videos - the stars of those videos, that was never Baghdadi. He was rarely seen. The - those videos and that propaganda really highlighted sort of the ordinary foot soldier and said, there's a place for you in this project. Come. We want you to be part of this project.

And so that's the message that is expected to outlive Baghdadi, that, you know, he was there at this crucial time, where it achieved what other militant groups have tried for so long to do. It mobilized thousands of people from all over the world to come to this land. And it also created a ministate that had bureaucratic functions.

But he - al-Baghdadi himself stayed in the background of that because he, like any militant leader, knows that, you know, you walk around with a target on your back. And so whatever project you're creating, like a - like this caliphate project, it had to be tied to ideology and not personality.

MARTIN: That's NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Hannah, thank you.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.