The fall of Baghouz from the hands of the so-called Islamic State may have forced the world’s most wanted man i.e. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to re-emerge publicly in a video message after a gap of five years.
By Kabir Taneja
The fall of Baghouz, a small nondescript town in Syria’s desert regions of Deir Ezzor from the hands of the so-called Islamic State may have forced the world’s most wanted man to re-emerge publicly in a video message after a gap of five years. Over the past four of these years, multiple reports, both from Western forces and Russian ones, have claimed intelligence suggesting ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was being killed in the operations or airstrikes.
On 29 April, the Al Furqan media wing of the ISIS, responsible for releasing high-profile propaganda material from the group, uploaded a video of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sitting in a room with pure white walls, the building structure showing no signs of wear and tear, in the presence of three men with their faces covered as he addressed them. This release was significant, with his last public video appearance being in June 2014, when he announced the establishment of the caliphate, standing at the Al Nuri mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul Baghdadi.
Why Baghdadi decided to release this video now could be associated with two major events over the past few weeks. First and foremost is the fall of Baghouz, the last of the ISIS controlled territory in Syria which effectively ended the geographic reign of the Islamic State. The fallout of this loss was evident. Hundreds of pro-ISIS fighters escaped into the desert with many others surrendering or getting captured and held in Kurdish captivity. This has been more problematic for the Kurds and the Western alliance backing it than the ISIS. While the ISIS feels the pinch of loss, it also acknowledges that a cohesive, well-defined political force has not taken the territory but a patchy, put-together alliance at best. Many ISIS fighters interviewed after the fall of Baghouz, including women, have shown unrelenting support towards the caliphate and the cause that they fought for.
Meanwhile, cracks appeared in the anti-ISIS campaign, despite President Donald Trump’s unilateral declaration that the ISIS was defeated earlier this year, and announcing a significant troops withdrawal from the mission.
This caused internal turmoil within the ranks of the coalition itself, as Brett McGurk, the American military chief leading the anti-ISIS coalition resigned after finding himself excluded from the withdrawal decision. However, perhaps the bigger betrayal was felt by Kurdish General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, who lost thousands of his people fighting the ISIS in an act that can be only described as a major sacrifice by a group for the common good of the world, only to be rewarded with a situation where the Kurds were left to fend for themselves. Today, Kurds holding ISIS fighters in captivity are at capacity, and have even requested countries to take back their citizens who had joined ISIS or they’d be forced to let these battle-hardened Islamists free.
Second, the Sri Lanka attacks on Easter last week, which killed more than 250 people, is being used as a metric to showcase ISIS’s approach and to counter the narratives of its demise. The loss of the caliphate would have caused significant depletion of morale within ISIS fighters, both in and around Syria and those who support the group in other countries. The Sri Lanka attacks, along with Baghdadi’s appearance where he looks relatively healthy, and in command, would be a morale boost across the board for the group’s supporters.
The video, 18 minutes long, shows Baghdadi with a long beard, visibly looking older and more haggard than he did in 2014, talking about various issues ranging from Sri Lanka to the recent fall of regimes in Sudan and Algeria which some have termed as Arab Spring 2.0. It is important to see this from the prism that the ISIS installed itself into the political vacuums left behind by the Arab Spring protests of 2011, and the Syrian civil war and discord in Iraq were not caused by the group themselves, rather they took full advantage of the impending chaos. In the video, the caliph also recognizes the importance of the media propaganda and the people behind it for ISIS. He commends Australian “media knight”, Abd Al-‘Ilah Al-Australi and slain French brothers Fabian and Jean-Michel Clain. ISIS has maintained its strategy since their early days to give the same level of hierarchical and institutional respect to its online propagators to those fighting on the ground. This has allowed the group to create a robust network of online ideologues that continuously feed pro-ISIS propaganda videos, images, posters, memes, audios and so on. In the video, Baghdadi also accepted pledges of pro-ISIS Islamist groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Afghanistan along with the Sri Lankans who committed the Easter terror attacks, and propagated further attacks against the West.
The video itself does not say anything out of the ordinary as far as ISIS’s ideologies and line of operations go, but does showcase Baghdadi as a leader in control. It was clearly recorded over the last eight days, as it mentions the latest events that concern the group. The most important thing that the video does is that it cements proof of life, not leaving it to imagination or false narrative, such as the case of former Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar who had died in 2013, but was only confirmed in 2015.
ISIS now for the near future will look to exist under the operational model of what the Sri Lanka attacks were, an organization, which blesses its supporters to conduct attacks across the world, and recognizing those who successfully do the same. This constantly evolving method of Do-It-Yourself terrorism poses new challenges for security and intelligence agencies, specifically in South Asia, where intra-state cooperation on these matters lies somewhere between being absolutely basic to non-existent. The threat is no different to what it has been for some time now, it’s a brand, and tracking who and where supports this brand in a hyper-connected and globalist world, used by ISIS as used by us, is the challenge set up for us.