The United States has been unwittingly responsible for the rise of the leader of ISIS, who has been directing the violence and takeover of numerous regions in Iraq, The New York Times reported.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, was initially a religious figure and was captured by U.S. forces during the Iraq War, the paper said. He was ultimately released, having been deemed a low-level risk, but during his five years in a U.S. detention facility, he became more radicalized.
"He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004," a Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Times. "It's hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he'd become head of ISIS."
Little is known about Baghdadi's early life and activities with al-Qaida in Iraq, even though American and Iraqi officials have had teams of intelligence analysts and operatives dedicated to following him.
His ascent to leadership of ISIS came in 2010 after the United States killed the group's top two leaders. Baghdadi directed the group's efforts in the civil war in Syria, fighting against Bashar al-Assad's government, according to the Times.
"I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if we had committed to empowering the moderate Syrian opposition last year," Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a recent hearing on the crisis in Iraq, according to the Times. "Would ISIS have grown as it did?"
Other politicians, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have accused President Barack Obama of helping ISIS's rise through withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011, and also by hesitating to arm more moderate Syrian opposition groups earlier in the conflict.
Baghdadi's rise was also aided by America's occupation of Iraq in that he was able to draw on the backlash to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, enabling him to recruit former Baathists to the cause.
"He has credibility because he runs half of Iraq and half of Syria," Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New American Foundation, told the Times.
Under Baghdadi's command, ISIS has made strides in state-building and solidified funding as well as its fighters.
Baghdadi commands not just a terrorist organization, but, according to Brett McGurk, the leading official on Iraq policy at the State Department, "a full-blown army."
Speaking at a recent congressional hearing, McGurk described the group as "worse than al-Qaida," the Times reported.
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