ISIS’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has appeared in a new video in which he reflects on the group’s territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Seen for the first time since his public declaration from the pulpit of Mosul’s Al-Nuri mosque in 2014, when he announced the establishment of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, the group’s leader projected an image of strength, resilience and expansion.
In the video, released on Monday, Baghdadi recognises the territorial and personnel losses incurred during ISIS’s final stand in the battle for the Syrian town of Baghuz. He insists that the “sacrifices” and “efforts” of all of those involved have not been in vain, adding that while this particular battle may have ceased, “the battle of Islam and its people against the cross and its people is a long battle”.
The world has long borne witness to the bloodshed wreaked by ISIS and its supporters around the world. Baghdadi described the events in Baghuz as having demonstrated the savagery of the Crusader alliance against the Muslim community. The message from the group’s leader is clear: ISIS is far from finished. Baghdadi used contrasting descriptions of the brutality of the ‘Crusaders’, on the one hand, and the steadfastness of the soldiers of his so-called caliphate, on the other, to punctuate his message of the group’s resilience and commitment to its path.
In addition to references to Baghuz, mentions of recent international events such as the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the popular uprisings in Sudan and Algeria provide a time stamp, indicating the message was recorded within the past month. While the video of Baghdadi appears recent, references to the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka feature in an audio-only section, indicating that the significant propaganda value of those attacks merited a late inclusion.
The video makes a clear and deliberate effort to project an image of a group that remains active and engaged in different geographic regions to instil fear. The message is that ISIS should not be dismissed based on developments in Iraq and Syria.
The video is aimed at two primary audiences: those aligned with ISIS, and those fighting against the group. By discussing the supposed heroism of ISIS members at Baghuz and lionising the actions of fighters, propagandists and administrators, Baghdadi appears to be reassuring followers and reviving the spirts of supporters around the world by contextualising recent territorial setbacks as part of a larger struggle. Similarly, the mention of continued pledges of allegiance, such as from Mali and Burkina Faso, further bolster Baghdadi’s attempts to highlight the group’s resolve and ongoing international appeal.
For those fighting ISIS, the video makes a clear and deliberate effort to project an image of a group that remains active and engaged in different geographic regions to instil fear. The message is that ISIS should not be dismissed based on developments in Iraq and Syria. The video features Baghdadi seemingly reviewing printed reports about ISIS’s regional affiliates, with their names clearly visible. The front covers of these documents show the group is providing status reports to Baghdadi on activities or developments from affiliates in Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, the Caucasus and Central Africa, showcasing the group’s continued international reach.
The timing of the message is also important. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins in the first week of May, and what is usually a period of abstinence, reflection and charity for most of the world’s Muslims has been used by ISIS in previous years as a month for increasing its violent activities. Seeing and hearing from the self-proclaimed commander of the faithful on the eve of this auspicious month, calling for jihad and sacrifice while pointing to the group’s international reach, suggests the video’s release is intended to inspire emotion and action in what is traditionally an active period for the group.
The emphasis on events and activities beyond Iraq and Syria may appear to be an inconsequential attempt to deflect criticism and divert attention, but it should not be underestimated. References to recent political developments in Sudan and Algeria echo the same rhetoric the group had employed leading up to its mass territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. Then, ISIS championed the need to topple tyrannical leaders and presented jihad as the only vehicle to ensure meaningful change, in a stark warning for the international community.
The significance of the latest video lies not simply in the re-emergence of the elusive ISIS leader five years after the world last heard from him, but rather in the substance of his message and the sequencing of its release. The reclaiming of territory previously held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria was a significant milestone in the fight against the group, but the continued, viable threat it poses in regions further afield cannot be underestimated or ignored. Territorial defeats appear not to have put the brakes on the group’s ideological ambitions and ability to conduct and inspire violence, as recently witnessed with the attacks in Sri Lanka.