Elusive ISIS leader is becoming new bin Laden

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces attacking the Iraqi government have declared their territory a new country under strict Islamic law. Their leader is becoming, in effect, the new Osama bin Laden.

In an elaborately produced video released by ISIS in May, there's a glaring omission. Among the fighters and ISIS faithful, there is not a single glimpse of their leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In fact, there are only two known photographs of the man, born in Iraq in 1971, who now controls the most extreme Islamist army on earth.

This is one of only two known photos of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. CBS News

And that's no coincidence, says Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East analyst with IHS Country Risk.

"You don't survive for a very long time in this kind of business if everybody knows your name, and knows your face and knows where you stay," he said.

In 2005, during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, U.S. soldiers arrested al-Baghdadi.

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But when the American military closed its Camp Bucca prison, al-Baghdadi was handed over to Iraqi security forces, who let him go.

In the five following years, he built a fighting force that joined Syria's civil war and took over hundreds of square miles.

In Syria, al-Baghdadi honed his skills as a commander with violence so extreme that even al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri cut all ties to ISIS.

That was fine with al-Baghdadi, whose organization says he's the new global leader of extremist jihad and even cataloged its accomplishments in, believe it or not, an annual report.

That listed, among other things, 1,083 assassinations and 537 bombs in parked cars

ISIS has produced elaborate videos, but its leader does not show his face in them. CBS News

"You can see a tendency to gloat and to try to appeal to recruits by showing them the kind of power that they would have if they joined ISIS," said Abi Ali.

And it's working. Thousands of young men from across the Muslim world have offered their allegiance to a leader whose face they will probably never see.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."