When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the podium at a mosque last June to deliver his first public Friday sermon, the world got a glimpse of the man who led an obscure extremist group from Syria to storm across the border into Iraq and took over the second-largest city in that nation to establish itself as the most serious menace to the existing order in the Middle East. Three weeks earlier, on June 10, the Islamic State group had easily routed the Iraqi army from Mosul. Now Baghdadi, wearing a black robe and turban, was announcing the creation of a caliphate that knew no modern borders and proclaiming himself its leader.
Soon after Baghdadi’s speech, pledges of allegiance to the group — also known as ISIS — poured in from individuals, small independent jihadist organizations and large groups whose allegiance used to be to al Qaeda, of which Baghdadi himself was formerly a member. One year later, despite an American-led air campaign to eradicate it, the Sunni extremist group has an operational presence in 10 countries, its eye on several others and a wide recruiting network, as well as a reputation for unparalleled brutality.
“ISIS is the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all of the elements that make it so alluring and addictive purified into a crystallized form,” Jessica Stein and J.M. Berger wrote in “ISIS: State Of Terror.”