“Who is Baghdadi?” Elderly imam recalls ISIS leader’s first public appearance
Earlier this year, CNN’s Arwa Damon traveled to what was left of the mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first announced the creation of ISIS’ “caliphate” and declared himself its leader in 2014. While Damon was there, she spoke with an elderly imam who was in the audience for Baghdadi’s now infamous address. Here’s what he had to say about that moment:
Standing at the edge of the rubble cascading out of the ruins of the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul’s Old City, Mahmoud Dawoud, an elderly imam, still recalls the Friday in July 2014 when a mysterious guest arrived to deliver a sermon.
Dawoud remembers losing cell phone reception two hours before prayer time, and wondering whether a tower had gone down. Shortly after that, masked men swarmed the streets and rooftops, a convoy of some 200 cars with tinted windows thundered up to the mosque’s entrance, and a man dressed in black robes and a black turban appeared.
“I wondered who was coming, we didn’t know who was coming,” he recalled. “Then they said Baghdadi is coming. We were like, who is Baghdadi?”
The imam said he hung at the back of the crowd as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of ISIS’ caliphate, declared himself its leader, and ordered all Muslims to obey him.
“‘I am a Muslim and I know my religion. I know that he isn’t here to protect Islam,'” Dawoud remembered thinking to himself at the time. “We were amazed when he declared the caliphate — the Ottoman caliphate ended 100 years ago, and now it’s back?
“People were all pledging allegiance and shouting ‘God is great.’ They were grabbing his shoulder, kissing him, as if that’s going to get them to heaven.”
Dawoud said he knew in that moment that Mosul would be destroyed.
Despite being hunted by the world’s best intelligence agencies and US authorities offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture, ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has proved to be incredibly elusive.
Over the last five years, there’s been little more than brief sightings, spotty intelligence and conflicting information about the leader’s whereabouts. He has been incorrectly reported dead or injured multiple times.
To date, the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul’s Old City, where Baghdadi announced the creation of ISIS’ so-called caliphate in 2014, is one of his only locations that have been fully confirmed.
It is believed that Baghdadi has gone to great lengths to bolster his security, moving around often and only meeting with his closest circle of associates. A mid-level Syrian ISIS prisoner on death row in Iraq told CNN earlier this year that there were attempts by foreign fighters to overthrow the leader more than a year ago, but Baghdadi had them killed. The dissent within ISIS leadership ranks further shrunk his entourage.
An Iraqi intelligence source told CNN that the sprawling Iraqi town of Al Shirqat was one of the areas Baghdadi moved through in 2015, holding meetings with senior commanders in safe houses. Abu Omar al-Shishani, who the Pentagon described as Islamic State’s “minister of war,” was killed in a targeted airstrike in the town in 2016, Iraqi intelligence and residents confirm. The target, they say, was a home where Shishani and Baghdadi used to meet.
A senior Iraqi intelligence officer told CNN that, on at least three occasions — two in Iraq and one in Syria — they called in strikes that came close to taking out Baghdadi.