Posted on: 15th May 2015
On 14 May 2015 ISIS released a 34-minute audio recording purportedly from their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is the first we have heard from the 'caliph' for months, but it is not confirmed that the speaker is Baghdadi himself. The media event was well planned, with social media accounts linked to jihadi sources trailing the recording days before, and translations, clearly produced by native speakers, into English, Russian, Turkish, German, and French, simultaneously disseminated online.
Analysis has so far focused on the authenticity of the speaker, given reports of his incapacitation, and speculation over when the recording may have been made. Regardless of these details, the content of the recording should be seen as an important insight into how ISIS wishes to present itself to the outside world, and informs us of their communications strategy.
At a time when ISIS is experiencing losses across Iraq and parts of Syria, the speaker's message is primarily intended to marshal support, imploring the global Muslim community to lend its backing to the ISIS project. It is only the last part of the recording that commends the "lions of the Caliphate" for their actions in Sinai, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen, and congratulating pledges of allegiance in Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Baghdadi's previous audio message in November 2014 was released after rumours spread of his injury in an airstrike on a convoy, and it seems that this recording was judged with similar timing, to reassure supporters after claims by Iraqi officials that the day-to-day running of the organisation is now conducted by his second-in-command.
Below, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics explores the content of the recording, and what it suggests about ISIS' ideological evolution, and what they are trying to communicate to current and future supporters.
"Jihad is presented as the only legitimate demonstration of true faith.Focus throughout the recording is on two prongs of religious obligation essential to ISIS' success, that of hijrah (migration) and jihad. According to the speaker "There is no excuse for any Muslim capable of performing hijrah." However, the recording is quick to emphasise that "We do not call upon you O Muslim out of weakness or inability," but rather "out of love for you." This conveys, despite the speaker's protestations, a sense of weakness, of a loss of fighters and resources and represents the third such call claiming to be from the ISIS leader for migration to the caliphate. The recording calls on former residents to return from lands where they are refugees such as "atheist Kurdistan," imploring them to regain their honour by returning to the "lands of the caliphate."The recording presents jihad (defined by the speaker as violent struggle) as the only legitimate demonstration of true faith, and the abandonment of this duty by practicing Muslims as double standards, saying that "your Lord commanded you to fast in one verse and commanded you with jihad and fighting in dozens of verses." Muslims are ordered to emulate the example of Prophet Muhammad whose "incisor tooth was broken in battle... and helmet was broken on his head."This rhetoric of violence echoes claims in the most recent issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine, Dabiq, that Islam is a "religion of war not peace," once more demonstrating the group's vulnerability to the counter-narratives of "evil scholars" engaging in theological repudiation of ISIS' religious justifications for its ideology and actions.The speaker unsurprisingly rejects the claims of leaders in the anti-ISIS coalition to be "defending Islam and Muslims," and similar rhetoric emphasising that the fight against ISIS is categorically not a war against Islam. Indeed, the recording presents the 'Jews' and 'Crusaders' fighting ISIS as having an evangelical agenda, claiming that Muslims will be persecuted by these countries until one "apostatises from his religion and follows theirs." Similarly, under the Salafi-separatist doctrine of al-wala' wal-bara (loyalty to Islam and enmity to other faiths), the speaker presents coexistence with "Jews, Christians and other disbelievers" as a rejection of tawhid (monotheism).Nuance weakens the ISIS narrative, and in painting the conflicts taking place across Iraq and Syria as one "between the allies of the Merciful and the allies of Satan," allows the group to root its message within a powerful apocalyptic ideological framework. The recording paints a global picture of religious persecution, presenting the persecution of Muslims from Palestine, Indonesia and the Caucasus, to the Rohingya in Myanmar and Uighurs in China, under a single banner of binary religious conflict. For the first time, ISIS also focuses on the grievances of Muslims in India, "against whom the Hindus commit the worst of crimes daily," referring to the increased perception of vulnerability within the country's Muslim community due to growing Hindu nationalism."
Saudi Arabia is attacked in largely geopolitical rather than religious language.A major preoccupation of the recording is an extensive attack on the "apostate tyrannical rulers" of Saudi Arabia, framed largely in geopolitical rather than religious language, in contrast to much of the rhetoric elsewhere in the recording. Playing on the name for the Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, the speaker says that the operation "is not a storm of resolve" but "rather the kick of a dying person" and a "storm of delusion."The recording seems adamant to emphasise Saudi Arabia as an increasingly irrelevant force in the regional theatre, claiming that the Kingdom's American "masters," have begun to supplant their 70-year 'special relationship' with training and funding of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga to combat ISIS on the ground.Both ISIS and Saudi Arabia view the other as a serious threat to its own legitimacy and influence given their close ideological affinity, and indeed the latter recently arrested almost 100 people for their alleged involvement in a domestic ISIS plot. As such, the recording attempts to undermine the Kingdom's religious credentials, saying that Saudi Arabia's leaders, far from being pious Salafi Muslims are "people of luxury and extravagance, people of intoxication, prostitution, dances and feasts."Presenting the conflict in Iraq and Syria as one that is "only against you and against your religion" suits ISIS' ideological narrative and its simplistic division of the world into two camps, the Dar al-Islam (Land of Islam) Dar al-Kufr (Abode of Apostasy). However, cases like Saudi Arabia, whose leadership rely on significant ideological facets with ISIS, complicate the story of grievance that ISIS presents in its propaganda, shown in this case by the lashing out in the recording against the Kingdom's foreign policy. Whether Baghdadi is incapacitated or not, this dynamic of the contest of influence between ISIS and Saudi Arabia will prove pivotal in an increasingly sectarian regional landscape.