For those of us who pay close attention to news coming out of the Middle East, it does seem like a dream, someone's dark dream and for some, a living nightmare.
While the siege of Gaza took center stage in July (Ramadan) another militant tempest consolidated disparate winds and launched itself fully formed from northern Syria's civil war into Iraq, taking observers, commentators and policy wonks by surprise. This tempest has many names.
Early on, the international press called them alternately ISIS or ISIL, depending on how the Arabic of their name was parsed. Now, having achieved many early victories, this storm of jihadis refer to their holdings as the Islamic State (IS), proclaiming a new caliphate.
Their enemies on the ground, which are many, refer to them as daesh, which apparently was originally an Arabic acronym for ISIL but is used mockingly, as a pejorative and has been linked in certain vernaculars to the idea of "pre-Islamic feuding Arab tribes," implying that these are folks pretending to be religious but that are really only picking fights.
Little is known about the inner workings or organization of the IS except that they were originally linked to Al Qaeda but were disavowed by that organization in February 2014 because of their extra special brutality in Syria. Since then, they have gone on a conquering spree, and effectively control, for now, key cities, roads and infrastructure assets in northern Syria and northern Iraq. They are ideologically driven, well organized, well funded, and because of recent military victories in Iraq, have access to weapons supplied to the Iraqi army by the United States.
At the core of the group, at least acting as a functional spiritual leader and now putative head of state, is the equally enigmatic and appropriately dour figure of, up until now, a little known and apparently insignificant cleric, who has gone by the name of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The IS released a snazzy, well produced video of al Baghdadi leading prayers and giving a highly charged sermon about ten days ago which was shot earlier in July (early Ramadan) at the principal Sunni mosque in Mosul. Al Baghdadi's sermon is pure, well honed rhetoric, steeped in the Islamic homiletic tradition. He begins with rhythmic formulas and then alternates between snatches of Qur'an, pulled from various chapters that are woven together with his specific brand of Salafi (a particular school of fundamentalist) interpretation. Hatred for the infidel (anyone who disagrees) and love for the faithful (those who agree) constitutes the core of the message.
He is mesmerizing in the way that any deeply convinced believer can be when given a pulpit, particularly for people who crave order, meaning, stability, to be guided. It's not clear that he's really who is calling the shots.
But al Baghdadi, who is now referred to as al Hussein al Qurayshi, which declares him to be a descendant of Muhammad, and Caliph Ibrahim, a supreme ruler in the spirit of Abraham, has been held up as the Prince of Faith. When new recruits, many of them young men and boys, some as young as 6 years of age, join the IS, they declare their allegiance to the Prince of Faith.
Whatever actual power he may wield, al Baghdadi is considered both the supreme political and religious head of a new Islamic order, a "king" who can claim to issue a fatwa; this was not something that bin Laden could really do with full symbolic authority. Al Baghadi promises to lead his followers into a new golden age of Islamic ascendancy.
Reports are coming in about the harshness of Islamic State interpretations of sharia, their treatment of women and religious minorities in Iraq. It is also clear that at least some Sunnis in Iraq have welcomed IS since they have felt their needs ignored by the Shia dominant government in Baghdad. Something about the Prince of Faith has struck a chord.
Of al Baghdadi himself, very little is known. It is said that he was a rather average, if religious, scholar at a modest Islamic university in Baghdad from a family of equally modest preachers. His given name was Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri. As a young man he enjoyed football (soccer) and was apparently pretty good. During the American occupation he was briefly taken into custody at Camp Bucca, held, and then later released because it was felt he constituted no real threat; the implication is that he made no lasting impression, despite the reportedly harsh conditions of the camp.
So now, here he is, the religious figurehead and seeming lynch pin of a brand new potentially volatile threat in the Middle East whose minions have promised to "liberate" Istanbul, Iran and Saudi Arabia in short order.
It is perhaps this lack of knowledge about al Baghdadi and the lightning speed at which ISIL has advanced which has made him an instant target of the most extravagant conspiracy theories, even as established Islamic religious authorities dismiss his religious and political claims as deluded and even heretical.
In one, which seems to have co-originated in Arab and certain Western sources, al Baghdadi is actually a specially trained MOSSAD (Israeli) operative who is posing as a pious, fundamentalist cleric but whose job is to completely destabilize the region so that a joint American-Israeli force can establish complete dominance when they come in to mop everything up.
What has not been predictable is that there are Muslim thinkers who agree with this determination up to a point. In certain Islamic formulations of the 'end times,' there are actually supposed to be two Dajjal (or anti-Christ like figures) who precede the Mahdi, who will then proclaim the return of Jesus.
It is significant that al Baghdadi has not been declared the Mahdi, or herald, of Jesus' return. This has happened a number of times in the past century and in each case has resulted in ruin and embarrassment for the proclaimer and his followers. For at least one Muslim commentator, who practices a complex form of Muslim numerology, al Baghdadi fits the profile and numerological timing of the advent of the first Dajjal who was to reveal himself in 2014. The formulations for this can be found here.
In any case, al Baghdadi and the IS have certainly gotten the attention they've been seeking. They are beginning to scare the crap out people. Although it is far from clear that the political and military aims of IS can be met, it is equally clear that they intend for their legacy to be lasting, whatever it turns out to be.