COME ONE, COME ALL
ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s New Video Is Desperate—but Potentially Effective
Sure, Baghdadi looks rough in his first video in five years. But that’s part of his transformation to hardened insurgent leader, and his appearance might draw recruits.
On Sunday afternoon, ISIS and its supporters began hyping an upcoming video from al-Furqan Media Foundation, the group’s media arm largely dedicated to producing leadership speeches. Not counting audio releases, the upcoming video was to be Furqan’s first since a July 2016 video detailing the provinces, departments, and other structural components of the group.
Still, it was an unusually energetic promotional campaign for a video that no one even knew the subject of. New channels were created and social media dedicated to the upcoming release, disseminating its promotional banner. One ISIS-linked group, Bank al-Ansar, even issued a notice offering social media account credentials for anyone participating in the campaign.
The hype finally made sense Monday when the video was released, featuring elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The man who had so many times been reported dead or debilitatingly injured was right in front of us.
The new video marks Baghdadi’s first visual appearance since a July 2014 video in which he, then the newly announced leader of ISIS’ rapidly expanding “caliphate,” delivered a sermon in Mosul, Iraq.
In Monday’s video, Baghdadi lectures three masked men sitting across from him, their faces blurred, on numerous global developments, many of which are recent, including Israel’s April 9 legislative election and political protests in Algeria and Sudan. After the visual lecture section, he praises the ISIS-pledged perpetrators of the Easter church bombings across Sri Lanka, though this audio may have been added after his face-to-face lecture with the men.
Of note is that for all his talk about Sri Lanka, he didn’t once mention the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand as justification. His lack of commentary follows suit with ISIS’ official claim, showing once more that the group didn’t need New Zealand to justify its massacres in Sri Lanka as its warped ideology has long allowed and urged for attacks on Christians, which I wrote about in the attack’s aftermath.
His justification for the Sri Lanka attacks instead aims elsewhere.
“And as for your brothers in Sri Lanka,” he is heard saying while footage of the attackers and attacks rolls, “they have put joy in the hearts of the monotheists with their immersing operations that struck the homes of the Crusaders on their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghuz.”
This appeal to Baghuz (also spelled Baghouz), the last vestige of ISIS’ caliphate in Syria, reclaimed by coalition and Syria Democratic Forces in late March, is the most critical element of Baghdadi’s statements. The loss was a major blow to the so-called caliphate and a staple of some leaders’ narratives of the group’s “defeat.” However, immediately upon its defeat, ISIS began to spin it into a recruitment narrative of the world’s war against ISIS and, by extension, against Islam. Baghdadi is more than willing to play along:
The battle of Baghuz had ended, and in it the barbarity and savagery of the nation of the Cross toward the Ummah of Islam was clear. At the same time, the bravery, steadfastness, and endurance of the Ummah of Islam was evident. This steadfastness tore apart the hearts of the Crusaders, which increased their frustration and hatred against those firm people from the Ummah of Islam…
Baghdadi even directly mentions ISIS’ “Revenge Operations for Blessed Sham Province” military campaign of revenge-branded operations across different battle fronts, saying it spans “290 operations in eight countries.” This campaign likewise instructed ISIS-linked media groups and supporters to post incitements against the West and Christians via images, articles, and other types of media.
But even considering the most grandiose of his assertions and less-than-subtle narratives of the world’s war against Islam, there wasn’t much to Baghdadi’s words—at least not anything that wasn’t already stated by ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, its weekly Naba digital magazine, or even any fighter in a routine video.
That said, the real rhetorical weight of Baghdadi’s resurfacing is not so much in what he says but rather Baghdadi himself.
On one hand, Baghdadi looks healthy—or at least healthy enough—appearing in this new video as an unspoken answer to ISIS’ significant military defeats and repeated news he had been killed.
On the other hand, nearly five years since we last saw him deliver his sermon in Mosul, Baghdadi appears significantly aged. His beard, once mostly black, is now gray, the bottom half of it dyed. He sits on a carpeted floor in a tan pocketed vest, far removed from the elaborately carved stonework of Mosul’s Great Mosque, where he wore commandingly black garb and a notoriously fancy watch.
Of course, ISIS could have presented its leader in a much more esteemed way—perhaps behind a table, at a podium, or even with an updated Just for Men treatment. But ISIS’ circumstances have changed drastically in recent years. With that, what we see now is the new, rebranded Baghdadi: caliph of the people. No longer the well-groomed, fancy watch-wearing ruler of country-sized swathes of Iraq and Syria, but instead the hardened leader of an insurgent force.
If this sounds like an act of desperation by ISIS, it’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not potentially effective. What Baghdadi and ISIS are attempting to tap into are elements much older than his tenure as self-proclaimed caliph. Humble attire was a staple of Osama bin Laden. The way he dressed was something that added to his reputation as the rich kid who left it all for his religion—something Baghdadi may see as worth striving for, given the adoration of bin Laden across the entire global jihadi community.
Even putting Baghdadi’s attire aside, the very format of this video emulates that of another immensely popular jihadi figure, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Baghdadi’s predecessor. The similarity between Monday’s showing of Baghdadi and “A Message to the People,” an April 2006 video showing Zarqawi sitting among a group of his own fighters, is impossible to ignore.
Monday’s video in many ways the last, but most powerful, recruitment hand the group’s leadership can play. It allows Baghdadi to prove he is alive while giving a jolt of life to the us-versus-the-world narrative that has already radicalized so many.
So while his appearance may not in itself project the military threat he once exerted, it nonetheless serves as a dangerously powerful line of outreach between Baghdadi and those who sincerely believe him to be their caliph.
Phil Cole, a SITE senior analyst, contributed to this article.