Noted and notorious leader of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has resurfaced, according to a new video posted on the group’s media network, responsible for releasing high-profile propaganda material from the group.
Within weeks of the fall of the ISIS caliphate in Baghouz, Syria, a man with the appearance of Baghdadi appeared in a video for the first time in five years, reported Reuters on Tuesday.
Through the 18-minute video from the Al Furqan network, Baghdadi has not only let the world know he is alive, but also confirmed what experts always knew to be true – that ISIS is far from being defeated, dead and gone.
What it means
Many believe that the fall of Baghouz, and with it the geographic reign of the Islamic State, may have prompted the world’s most wanted man to re-emerge publicly in a video message after a gap of five years.
Uploaded on April 29, the video could be a means of boosting militants and assuring sceptics that Baghdadi is still in charge and that his group is still very much in the game despite losing all their territory to western and Kurdish-led forces. Or, it could be a way of encouraging ISIS-inspired outfits that exist and operate across the globe.
Last week, ISIS claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, with the leader of a local Islamist group pledging his loyalty to the Islamic State in a now-viral video.
In fact, Baghdadi mentions that the explosions in Sri Lanka were carried out to avenge the losses inflicted on the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq and Syria in the video. The New York Times, however, observed that the video may have been recorded before the events in Sri Lanka, as this portion is only an audio.
What can/can’t we see in the video?
In the video, Baghdadi is seen wearing a black tunic with his head covered in cloth, seated on a carpeted floor with an automatic rifle propped up against the whitewashed wall beside matching cushions. The structure showed no ostensible signs of wear or tear. He was in the presence of three men with their faces covered as he addressed them.
They talked about a range of issues including the recent fall of regimes in Sudan and Algeria which some have termed as Arab Spring 2.0. It is worth remembering that ISIS had been the ones to fill the political vacuum left by the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
In the video, the caliph also recognises the importance of media propaganda for ISIS, expressing his admiration for Australian “media knight”, Abd Al-‘Ilah Al-Australi, and slain French brothers Fabian and Jean-Michel Clain. Baghdadi also accepted pledges of pro-ISIS Islamist groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Afghanistan along with Sri Lanka’s National Towheeth Jama’ath.
The authenticity and date of the recording could not be independently verified. The location, of course, is not clear although Reuters reports it as a remote area in the Middle East. This release is significant because the last time he made a public appearance, it was in June 2014 when he historically proclaimed the group’s now-defunct caliphate in Mosul (Iraq).
Where is Baghdadi now?
Baghdadi’s whereabouts remained a mystery ever since — unknown even during the offensive against ISIS earlier this year. In fact, multiple reports over the last four years claimed that he had been killed in western or Russia-led operations or airstrikes.
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday, “Regarding the location of Baghdadi, we can’t give intelligence information right now but it’s clear from the video that he’s in a remote area.”
According to Reuters, Iraqi security officials have narrowed his whereabouts from 17 to a possible four locations – in the desert of Iraq’s Anbar (province) or in the (eastern) desert of Homs in Syria.
Baghdadi vows ISIS will be back. How’s regrouping working so far?
Following the defeat of the Caliphate, US president Donald Trump had declared that ISIS had been 100% destroyed although reports seem to suggest that jihadists are now waging regular insurgent-style attacks against security forces in both countries.
Mahdi said that the video with Baghdadi, an Iraqi, suggested that although weakened, Daesh (ISIS) would attempt to carry out more attacks like the ones in Sri Lanka. Islamic State remains a potent threat around the world, he said, AS ISIS-led insurgencies continue in the far-flung corners of the globe—Nigeria, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, with aspiring branches in Bangladesh, Somalia, and Indonesia.
This should, therefore, serve as a caution for Donald Trump who wishes to completely withdraw troops from the region. Warnings were sounded as early as last month, that surviving foreign ISIS members seeking to return home can present a major security challenge in the years ahead. Kurdish forces have already switched to counter-terrorism tasks in areas reclaimed from ISIS.
Timeline of ISIS caliphate
In 2014, ISIS fighters swept across northern Syria and Iraq in a blistering offensive that shocked the world, sending the US-funded Iraqi army fleeing. Soon after, the group proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate, claiming religious, political, and military authority over Muslims worldwide. In a carefully stage-managed address, Bakr called on Muslims around the world to join his holy war.
Thousands of sympathisers and supporters, also known as muhajiireens, played an important role in furthering the group’s influence by recruiting members, glorifying the caliphate on social media, and celebrating violence against perceived enemies of Islam. ISIS has always 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.
In a short span of time, they managed to found a functional proto-state that exported oil, relied on taxes, and carried out extortion and kidnap to sustain itself economically. Murderous rampages and mass graves from Mosul to Raqqa marked the ISIS regime in the region.
The last of the terror group’s self-styled caliphate, which once stretched over thousands of kilometres and ruled over millions, was declared as defeated after taking a battering over the last eight months, by US-led coalition forces.
A united front ended Baghdadi’s caliphate dream. What’s next?
The war on ISIS mobilised some of the world’s most powerful armies, including local forces and allied troops, to form a 79-member coalitiontargeted against the Islamic State.
In September 2018, the SDF launched a major offensive in a small area along the Euphrates river to defeat ISIS; that met with a hitch after the US announced it would withdraw its troops from Syria, throwing the entire operation in jeopardy.
Late February, however, the offensive restarted at a pace unlike any of the earlier major battles for Mosul and Raqqa, pointing to the imminent erasure of ISIS from Syria. It has been the most bitter phase, as villages of Baghouz housed the group’s most hardened fighters and leaders.
After the humiliating defeat, the militant group has sought to regroup, to stage a return to its original structure which existed before Baghdadi declared his caliphate.
Baghdadi’s resurgence may now provide ISIS’s scattered cells with the impetus they had lacked of late, motivating them to unleash more frequent and coordinated terror attacks to aggressively pursue their agenda of total domination.
To fight insurgent terrorism will require double the strategic prowess and collective effort to weed out ISIS networks spread across the world, targeting financing channels and political backers instead of conducting relentless air strikes and killing thousands of civilians in the process.
Another method that has worked in ISIS’s context is training and mobilising grassroots armies. The recapture of Syrian city Kobani, which marked the beginning of the end for ISIS, was possible because of Rojava’s People’s Protection Units. Notable for its women fighters, the YPG had put up fierce resistance in 2015, supported for the first time by the newly formed US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Most importantly, it is important to acknowledge that defeating terrorists will not solve internal conflicts and constitutional crises; militancy inevitably seeks political vacuum to make a space for itself — tapping into existing discord with rousing calls for separatist action and support. ISIS, for example, enjoys the backing of thousands of men and women, attracting young people irrespective of their nationalities. That is why democratic governments around the world have to rise to the occasion to address discontent more effectively, and solve sectarian disputes diplomatically instead of seeking an eye for an eye.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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