A Nightmare Returns

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By Aryn Baker,

from TIME Magazine,

Emboldened by success in Syria, al-Qaeda occupies its old haunts in Iraq

Few Iraqi cities bear in their dust-covered stones the tragic symbolism of America’s misbegotten war like Fallujah does.

So the pain was anything but symbolic for U.S. veterans of the Iraq War when they learned that the city had fallen again on Jan. 4, not just to armed rebels eager to oust the Baghdad government but to a powerful al-Qaeda affiliate that is among the most feared in the Middle East. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), had emerged from weeks of chaotic fighting in Anbar province to drive police and the army from the town. By Sunday night, ISIS fighters had reportedly taken down and burned all the Iraqi flags from the city’s buildings and raised in their place the black banner of al-Qaeda.

ISIS is a threat well beyond Fallujah, thanks to the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and a decade of brutal fighting under his belt, the 42-year-old Iraqi has risen in the ranks of al-Qaeda as few other local affiliate leaders have around the region and the world. He has even been so brazen as to pick a fight with Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And though he has shown little appetite to attack the U.S., he represents the kind of Islamic extremist who counterterrorism officials believe may pose the greatest terrorist threat to Americans in the post–bin Laden era. Yet he is all but unknown to the general public. The only photograph of him in circulation is a grainy shot the U.S. State Department uses to advertise the $10 million price tag it has put on his head.

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