Al Qaeda repeats old mistakes as a new act in Falluja's tragedy unfolds

If Fishman appears to have been wrong about one thing, however, it was in his prediction that Isis – under Baghdadi – had learned from the mistakes of al-Qaida under Iraq’s former emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air strike in 2006 and who was Baghdadi’s mentor. The reality, as had become clear in both Syria and Iraq, is that Baghdadi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, rebranded as Isis in April last year as he vowed to declare war on the governments of both countries, had not changed its spots.

In Syria its secret prisons, sharia courts, executions and assassinations of other rebels have provoked the recent powerful backlash. In Iraq, too, there are indications that the same Sunni forces that once coalesced to combat the first incarnation of al-Qaida in Iraq are gathering again.

Given the history of Baghdadi, none of this should be surprising. Born in 1971 into a religious family in the city of Samarra, Baghdadi earned a doctorate in education from the University of Baghdad. After the US invasion in 2003 he was quickly drawn into the emerging al-Qaida under Zarqawi, getting involved first in smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq, then later as the “emir” of Rawa, a town near the Syrian border. There, presiding over his own sharia court, he gained a reputation for brutality, publicly executing those suspected of aiding the US-led coalition forces.

In his rise to the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq in 2010 – and later of Isis – he killed prominent Sunnis as well as Shia civilians in bombings, announcing unilaterally last year the creation of his new group and that it would be merging with the rival al-Qaida affiliate active in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. This pronouncement was disputed by Jabhat, which appealed to al-Qaida Central’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ruled against Baghdadi.