A dark red-brown car pulls up in front of the headquarters of a jihadist organisation in a northern Syrian town.

Inside are four men, all except the driver holding machine-guns. One has a long beard and wears a black balaclava folded into a square on his head, with a black shawl draped over it.

As they vanish into the building past two armed guards, a commander whispers: "You have just seen Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi."

What would have looked like an unremarkable moment in Kafr Hamra in April 2013 was the first in a chain of events that would lead to the declaration of a global caliphate.

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Watching it unfold was jihadist fighter "Abu Ahmad", who on condition that his identity is protected, sensationally shared his account of this pivotal encounter with Foreign Policy.

World's most wanted

Al-Baghdadi is now the leader of the Islamic State and the most wanted man in the world, with repeated attempts to kill him failing to confirm any success.

He has called for IS to march on the West and establish an Islamic State in Europe. In 2015, he allegedly took hostage Kayla Mueller as his wife and repeatedly raped the US aid worker. She was later reportedly killed either by IS or during an air strike on the jihadists.

Back in 2013, this malevolent figure had been leader of al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq (Isil) for three years, and had reportedly assisted in the creation of the Nusra Front in Syria.

But he had greater ambitions. He wanted to combine al-Qaeda's Iraqi and Syrian affiliates into one, sprawling organisation that could terrify and subordinate the world.

Magnetic Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rose quickly to power by persuading others to trust in his grandiose and terrifying ideas. Photo / AP
Magnetic Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rose quickly to power by persuading others to trust in his grandiose and terrifying ideas. Photo / AP

The meeting

For five days after he first spotted al-Baghdadi, Abu Ahmad paid close attention to what was happening at the headquarters of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) in northern Syria.

The jihadi leader and his deputy, Haji Bakr, arrived each morning in the same car, before leaving at sunset.

Abu Ahmad, a disillusioned insider who has only now told his story for the first time, asked around and discovered that some of the world's most prominent jihadists were gathered in a room within these walls.

They sat on mattresses and pillows on the ground, eating roasted or grilled chicken and french fries with tea and soft drinks.

There was MSM emir Abu al-Atheer; Egyptian jihadi commander Abu Mesaab al-Masri; senior Chechen jihadi Omar al Shishani from Georgia; Libyan jihadi leader Abu al-Waleed al-Libi; two Nusra intelligence chiefs; and an emir from Libyan Katibat al-Battar group, Abed al-Libi.

The charismatic Al-Baghdadi was on a mission to convince these men to sign up to his cause.

Al-Baghdadi's argument

Al-Baghdadi had announced on April 8 his determination to bring about the end of Nusra and the ISI, gathering them under one name, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).

But the emirs he was trying to persuade had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor as al-Qaeda leader.

Al-Baghdadi said he too had sworn allegiance, and he was acting under al-Zawahiri's covert orders.

He told them the jihadists needed to stop hiding in the shadows and mark out their own territory. While the other leaders thought this would make them a target, al-Bahgdadi insisted the militants needed borders, institutions and structure to attract Muslims from across the world and achieve their goal of total domination.

The emirs were finally convinced, swearing allegiance on condition that he had the support of al-Qaeda's al-Zawahiri and co-operated with jihadist groups Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

On al-Baghdadi's request, they then brought him foreign fighters, who also pledged themselves to his cause. The magnetic new caliph had set the ball rolling.

Al-Baghdadi was able to usurp the elusive al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, pictured at an Afghan hide-out in 2011 with predecessor Osama bin Laden. Photo / AP
Al-Baghdadi was able to usurp the elusive al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, pictured at an Afghan hide-out in 2011 with predecessor Osama bin Laden. Photo / AP

Islamic State is formed

When Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani saw what was happening, he was alarmed at the surge of his supporters to al-Baghdadi's cause.

He warned his fighters not to sign up until al-Zawahiri had decided who should lead the jihad in Syria. Most ignored him, with thousands flocking to follow their new leader.

Al-Zawahiri issued a statement that Isil should be abolished and al-Baghdadi confine his group's activities to Iraq. But it was too late.

Al-Baghdadi's new soldiers ordered the few remaining Nusra Front loyalists out of their Aleppo base and seized other buildings and weapons across northern Syria.

It was a dramatic split in the ranks of the anti-government rebels, heralding the decline of al-Qaeda and the rise of Isil.

The following year, hundreds of fighters were killed as Isil clashed with Nusra, and thousands of citizens were displaced. In February 2014, al-Qaeda rejected any links with the jihadist superpower.

By June, the group was proclaiming a global caliphate, and had taken on a name to reflect its purpose: Islamic State.