Re-emergence of Islamic State’s Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Anurag Sharma, Research Associate, VIF

On Saturday, April 27, 2019, Islamic State’s (IS) central media outlet, Al-Furqan, released an 18-minute propaganda video featuring its ‘underground’ leader and self-proclaimed ‘Caliph Ibrahim’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.1 It was the first time in half-decade, that Al-Baghdadi made a public appearance in a video message. Last time it was in summer of 2014 (04 July), when the IS leader appeared at the podium from the shadows of Friday prayer during the month of Ramadan at Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri. In his message to his follower he called upon the Ummah (Muslim communities) around the world to “obey” him as the Caliph of the newly declared Caliphate and pay allegiance to the group. 2

In past, Al-Furqan used to mostly broadcast his audio messages and those of the IS leadership. Video messages used to come on very rare occasions and used to mostly carry gory images of brutal killing of IS hostages or dissenters. Therefore, the release of the latest video now has raised considerable interest among IS watchers, raising questions like its authenticity, the purpose behind its release and most importantly, the significance of timing of the release. In the following paragraphs, an attempt is made to decipher some of these questions.

Islamic State Caliph’s Communications since 2014

International and national news media extensively covered the story of Al-Baghdadi’s new video on 30 April, 2019. However, these did not come out with any unequivocal statement about the exact date or time when this video was shot, nor on its authenticity which remains questionable. Although the snapshots from the video seem of High Definition (HD) quality, thus reflecting the sophistication of technology being used by the IS at present.

Interestingly, the video featuring Al-Baghdadi appeared just a week after the deadliest terrorist attack in Sri Lanka (21 April), and a week prior to the commencement of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam (05 May-04 June). Earlier, IS used to release video and audio messages from senior IS leadership to mark the occasion of Ramadan and to issue a call for further terrorist attacks.3

Following are the eight reported timelines since 2014, excluding the recent one on 27 April, 2019, of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s communication or messages released by IS’s media outlet at various social-media platforms:-

  1. 04 July 2014: This was Al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance from the podium of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri, declaring himself as the Caliph of IS and urged Muslims around the world to pay allegiance to him.
  2. November 2014: IS released a 33-minute audio message via its social media channel, claimed that the voice was of Al-Baghdadi. The primary purpose of that audio was to counter claims of Al-Baghdadi’s death in a US-led air strikes in Mosul during that week. In the audio message, the speaker [claimed to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] emphasised that IS’s fighters would not cease fighting against the crusaders and enemies of Islam “even if only one solider remains”.4
  3. May 2015: Six months after that audio message, the IS media outlet, Al-Furqan, released another audio message claimed to be from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressing the Ummah. The message repeated the July 2014 announcement, urging Muslims around the world to do Hejira (emigrate) to the self-established Caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria.5 It was the first time when Al-Baghdadi claimed that “Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. It is the war of Muslims that Islamic State is spearheading”.6
  4. December 2015: On 26 December 2015, IS released another 23-minute audio message claiming Al-Baghdadi as the main speaker. In this audio, Al-Baghdadi warned US and its allies not to challenge them; they must learn lessons from their defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also threatened Israel saying that IS “terror network would aim to establish an IS in Palestinian territory”.7
  5. November 2016: On November 02, 2016, after a gap of 10 months, IS released a much-awaited audio message of Al-Baghdadi. It came at the time when the outfit was fast losing most of its territory around Mosul. In the 30-minute audio message, Al-Baghdadi claimed that nothing had changed and its fighters must continue to fight the Shias and Alawites, and carry forward the jihad to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and beyond the region. The message not only boosted the morale of left-over fighters but also ensured them that their martyrdom would be marked in the history of Islam.8
  6. September 2017: On September 28, 2017, another 46-minute audio message was released by Al-Furqan. In this recording, Al-Baghdadi talked about the world affairs including the North Korea’s nuclear threat to US, and urged IS fighters to continue to fight. The audio message also came 10 months after the previous audio, and it denied the ‘false claims’ of Russia and Iran regarding Al-Baghdadi’s death. It was the first time that Al-Baghdadi urged IS fighters to target and attack the Western media. He said, “Oh soldiers of Islam, in every location increase blow after blow and make the media centres of the infidels, from where they wage their intellectual wars, among the targets”.9
  7. August 2018: After 11 months of his last audio communication, Al-Furqan released another audio recording of its Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on August 22, 2018. In his morale boosting message, Al-Baghdadi urged the IS fighters by saying, “Oh Caliphate soldiers…trust in Allah’s promise and His victory….for with hardship comes relief and a way out.” It was call upon all IS’s followers and fighters to “persevere” what they have and prepare to launch attacks around the world even after loss of territories in Iraq and Syria and deaths of most of IS’s senior rank members in fight with US and its allied forces.10

Since 2014, excluding Al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance (July 2014) and the recent video tape released on 27 April 2019 featuring himself, there had been seven occasions where Al-Baghdadi addressed through audio tapes, the IS fighters around the world and warned the Western countries of continuing attacks.

Physical Appearance of IS’s ‘Caliph’

In the recently released video, Al-Baghdadi is wearing a long black robe, a black scarf over the head, and a Khaki military-style vest. The video shows him sitting comfortably on the carpeted floor, with an automatic rifle (possibly Kalashnikov) leaning against an off-white background (possibly a side of a tent). Baghdadi looks hale and hearty. In fact, he seems to have put on some weight over the last 5 years. The video shows him addressing few of his followers with their faces blurred out. Although in the time-span of five years, many of IS’s terrorist has been killed in battles with the coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, the appearance of their leader through a video could play an important role to boost the morale of IS terrorists, in particular when he is portrayed as strong, healthy and confident of IS’s strength in on-going and future phase of so-called Caliphate.11

Image 1. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: July 2014 (left) & April 2019 (right) [Courtesy: BBC Monitoring Insights] 12

Islamic State: Setbacks but not Gone Yet

In the current video, Al-Baghdadi significantly refers to some recent developments that are designed to assure the audience of its time-frame validity. He acknowledged the loss of IS’s final territorial hold in the battle of Baghuz in Syria, but pledged to continue the jihad as a long battle against the crusaders and the enemies of Islam.13 Addressing his fighters, Al-Baghdadi stated that “Truthfully, the battle of Islam and its people against the ‘cross and its people’ is a long battle. The battle of Baghuz is over, but it did show the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians towards the Muslim community.”14 The video also referred to political events occurred during 9-22 April in the African region (fall of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, and the resignation of Algerian leader Bouteflika) and Israel (Netanyahu’s re-election as Prime Minister).

Most significantly, the video carries an important segment on Sri Lanka bombings that happened on Easter Sunday (April 21) in which more than 250 people were killed and 500 were injured. In that segment, Al-Baghdadi praised the perpetrators of the attack but interestingly, linked the Sri Lanka attacks to the defeat in the battle of Baghuz, and not to the attacks by a Christian extremist on Mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand. 15

There were reports that Sri Lanka bombing’s perpetrators paid allegiance to IS prior to the attacks. In the video, there were a series of subtitles where the message was read as, “Americans and Europeans failed as we [IS] congratulate our brothers in Sri Lanka for their allegiance to the caliphate, and we [IS] advise them to stick to the cause of God and unity and to be a thorn in the chest of the crusaders. We ask God to accept their martyrdom and help the brothers fulfil the journey they started.”16

Few Considerations

The main significance of the release of video at this moment in time is to assure the IS cadres around the world that the Caliph was alive and that he still was in command of the movement. After the bombings in Sri Lanka and the foiled terror attack in Saudi Arabia on 21 April 2019, the message from the Caliph to the IS fighters was to emphasise that efforts must continue as long as their leader is alive despite major setbacks to the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.17 Like it was in his first public appearance of 2014, this time too a video recording was apparently the preferred option to convey the message that he was alive, in command and to reinforce his image as ‘warrior-scholar’ among his fighters.18

The message gave a basis to the Amaq agency’s statement claiming responsibility for the Sri Lankan serial bombing, just 48 hours after the event. Experience has shown it that such claims are made only after due verification of the details and mostly these are not contested by other Tanzeems. This is not to say that the Sri Lanka bombings were carried out under direct instructions from the IS high command since no such entity exists for assigning day-to-day operations. IS-inspired local groups directly plot and execute actions either through their own modules or sometimes, as in Europe and UK, self-motivated lone wolf terrorists carry out such actions which, after due verification, are owned up by IS.

The Colombo episode does underscore the worrying thought that IS or ISIS modules do exist in India and the neighbourhood; that they are in touch if not operational coordination with each other and that there is need for greater coordination both in sharing of intelligence and in planning operations. Apart from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh too should be co-opted in the larger regional efforts.

Coming back to the Al-Baghdadi video, even as the implications are still being studied, analysts do agree that the message is well timed to boost the morale of the crest-fallen fighting cadres of IS and that despite the major setbacks, IS may be down but not out as yet. The fighters (including Al-Baghdadi himself) may be on the run, but the phenomenon of IS and its core ideology have not gone yet. It’s quite likely that in the aftermath of the video message some sporadic incidents will take place in regions where the followers have not been decimated. Countries in South and South East Asia might figure high in the search for targets. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives too may like to review their intelligence and security apparatus.

To the final critical question, ‘Where is Al-Baghdadi at present?’, the regional and western intelligence officials suspect that before the fall of Baghuz, on 07 January 2019, Al-Baghdadi may have fled with his bodyguards to Iraq, and could be hiding in Anbar province in the West of Iraq. 19 That still remains in the realm of speculation. The search must continue globally, just as it was done in the case of Osama bin Laden. It may be worth noting that in the global context, Al-Baghdadi, carrying the emotive message of the Caliphate, could well turn out to be a more serious threat to peace and security.

References:
  1. Williams, Jennifer. “ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi releases new video, proving he’s still alive”, Vox, 29 April 2019, Available from: https://www.vox.com/world/2019/4/29/18522532/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-new-video-propaganda-sri-lanka-bombings
  2. Strange, Hannah. “Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses Muslims in Mosul”, The Telegraph, 05 July 2014, Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10948480/Islamic-State-leader-Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi-addresses-Muslims-in-Mosul.html
  3. Al-Lami, Mina (@Minalami). 2019. “It comes a week……attacks”, Twitter, 28 April 2019, 08:05 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/Minalami/status/1122509644356829184
  4. “Islamic State: ‘Baghdadi message’ issued by jihadists”, BBC News, 13 November 2014, Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30041257
  5. Hejira: Muhammad's departure from Mecca to Medina in AD 622, marking the consolidation of the first Muslim community.
  6. “Islamic State releases ‘al-Baghdadi message’”, BBC News, 14 May 2015, Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32744070
  7. Howell, Kellan. “ISIS leader threatens West, Israel in first statement in seven months”, The Washington Times, 26 December 2015, Available from: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/dec/26/abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-isis-leader-threatens-west-is/
  8. Wood, Graeme. “The ‘Caliph’ Speaks”, The Atlantic, 04 November 2016, Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/caliph-baghdadi-mosul-isis-iraq-syria/506567/
  9. Awadalla, Nadine, and Eric Knecht. “Islamic State’s Baghdadi, in undated audio, urges militants to keep fighting”, Reuters, 28 September 2017, Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi/islamic-states-baghdadi-in-undated-audio-urges-militants-to-keep-fighting-idUSKCN1C32C4
  10. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘New audio message’ from IS leader released”, BBC News, 23 August 2018, Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45277322
  11. Al-Lami, Mina (@Minalami). 2019. “Baghdadi’s appearance………coming phase”, Twitter, 30 April 2019, 02:33 AM, Available from: https://twitter.com/Minalami/status/1122969616404365313
  12. BBC Monitoring, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/832xn/p077xf0b.jpg ; https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/832xn/p077x1w5.jpg
  13. Williams, Jennifer. “ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi releases new video, proving he’s still alive”, Vox, 29 April 2019, Available from: https://www.vox.com/world/2019/4/29/18522532/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-new-video-propaganda-sri-lanka-bombings
  14. Chulov, Martin., Dan Sabbagh. “Isis leader Baghdadi appears in video for first time in five years”, The Guardian, 30 April 2019, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/29/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-appears-in-video-for-first-time-in-five-years
  15. Chulov, Martin., Dan Sabbagh. “Isis leader Baghdadi appears in video for first time in five years”, The Guardian, 30 April 2019, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/29/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-appears-in-video-for-first-time-in-five-years
  16. Ibid.
  17. Maher, Shiraz (@ShirazMaher). 2019. “After the bombings……off big attacks”, Twitter, 30 April 2019, 02:22 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/ShirazMaher/status/1123148114288836608
  18. Maher, Shiraz (@ShirazMaher). 2019. “Just as Baghdadi……frontlines”, Twitter, 30 April 2019, 02:22 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/ShirazMaher/status/1123148127232507904
  19. Ibid.

Image Source: https://www.stratfor.com/sites/default/files/styles/article_large/public/Islamic%20State%20Leader%20al-Baghdadi.jpg?itok=RL0P_FiP

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