For all his power and newfound notoriety, there are only two authenticated photos of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man now called the world's "most powerful jihadi leader." One shows a man with an olive complexion and a round countenance. The other, released by the Iraqi government in January, depicts an unsmiling bearded figure in a black suit. The image is cracked and blurry, as though someone had taken a picture of a picture.
The murkiness of the picture is appropriate. The man who orchestrated the sacking of one of Iraq's most important cities and today controls a nation-size swath of land is a relatively unknown and enigmatic figure.
Much of what is known of Baghdadi's history is unconfirmed.
Several facts, however, are clear: Baghdadi leads the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the group that evolved from the al-Qaida in Iraq organization that U.S. troops once fought. He appears to be a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser and a ruthless killer. The United States has a $10 million bounty on his head.
In just one year of grisly killing, he has in all likelihood surpassed even al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in clout and prestige among Islamist militants.
In 2005, Baghdadi was captured by U.S. forces and spent the next four years as a prisoner in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. It's also there, reported al-Monitor, that he possibly met and trained with key al-Qaida fighters.
The rise of ISIS under Baghdadi's stewardship has been less about a cult of personality than what one expert told Agence France-Presse signaled a "transnational ideology." This became especially clear after Baghdadi cast off al-Qaida's leadership last June. "I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter," Baghdadi told Zawahiri, who had tried to bring the rogue commander back into line.
Since then, the power of Baghdadi, who some say may soon establish himself as emir of a new Islamic state, has only grown, as has that of ISIS.