On April 29, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State (IS), openly appeared in a video for the first time in almost five years.
The main objective of the video is to showcase to IS followers that al-Baghdadi is alive and still in command of the organization, and to rally his followers to increase their rate of activities.
Additional goals of the video include portraying al-Baghdadi as a combat leader and successor of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as to bolster the image of the organization’s global operations.
Lastly, the video includes some insights into IS’s current organizational structure and into its affiliated groups around the world.
There is likely to be an increase in the rate, scope, and scale of attacks by IS and by sympathizers of the group over the coming weeks and months, particularly during the upcoming holy month of Ramadan.
During this time frame, IS will put a greater emphasis on conducting high-profile attacks against soft targets, including in regions that so far did not witness an attack by the group.
Over the longer term, IS will invest in building up its local affiliates, particularly in Africa and Central Asia, to compensate for its recent losses in the Middle East and its current inability to fully rehabilitate itself there.
On April 29, al-Furqan Media Foundation, the main Islamic State (IS) propaganda branch responsible for the release of messages by the group’s senior leadership, released an 18-minute video of IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is openly seen for the first time since an IS video on June 2014 showed him giving a sermon at al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
In the video, al-Baghdadi is addressing his followers through a long speech delivered to three companions whose faces have been blurred, and who are likely senior leaders in the organization.
Al-Baghdadi and the three companions seen in the video
Assessments & Forecast
Video aims to showcase al-Baghdadi is alive, well, and still heads the group, boost the morale of fighters and supporters
Throughout the first part of the video, al-Baghdadi names “martyrs” who have been killed during the Baghouz campaign in Syria, which concluded in March 2019 as IS lost its last pocket of control over an urban terrain and a population. Thus, the timing of the video is highly symbolic and meant to highlight to IS followers that the “Caliph” and “Amir al-Mu’minin” (“leader of the faithful”) is alive and well and still heads the group, despite its continues strategic losses in recent years. This is especially so as it comes after years of various rumors about al-Baghdadi being killed by different actors, and at times that he has been overthrown from the leadership of the group. It is important to note however, that despite seemingly being healthy, al-Baghdadi appears to be very weary, and the video cuts several times, likely to allow him to rest and to refer back to his notes. There are clear efforts made by IS to prove that the video is contemporary, including by al-Baghdadi referencing current events such as the ongoing political unrest in Algeria, the ongoing revolution in Sudan, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli elections.
However, the only time when the video does not show al-Baghdadi is when he speaks about the Sri Lanka Easter attack from April 21, as the video shows footage released by international media showing the aftermath of the attack, as well as by the IS-linked Amaq news agency showing the militants prior to the attack, with an audio recording by al-Baghdadi of different quality than that of the video. Thus, it is possible that the original video was made and edited prior to the Sri Lanka attacks, with IS later adding a reference to it, due to the event’s importance.
Overall, mentioning the loss of Baghouz and the Sri Lanka attack is meant to mobilize IS fighters, as well as the group’s supporters around the globe, to conduct attacks as part of the “Revenge for al-Sham (Syria)” Campaign, an ongoing effort that commenced after IS lost Baghouz, during which the group increased the rate, scope, and quality of their operations worldwide. While it remains unclear if this was intentional or not, the video was also released shortly before the holy month of Ramadan, which begins around May 6, a period of time that traditionally experiences an uptick in jihadist attacks, with the release of the video likely to serve as a further conducive factor for such attacks. Moreover, the references to Algeria and Sudan were emphasized by stating that “unfortunately Muslims did not wise up to the fact that they keep replacing one tyrant by another, and that the only way to deal with these tyrants is through Jihad for Allah”, thus trying to appeal to persistent widespread perceptions of marginalization among Muslims in order to increase the support base for IS.
Al-Baghdadi affirms strategic shift of IS from state-like structure to primarily asymmetric warfare
In the video, al-Baghdadi glorified the resistance of the Baghouz defenders and highlighted that “no IS territory was ever lost without a fight”, also mentioning by name the lost of Sirte, IS’s de facto capital in Libya, in December 2016. Later, he praised the recent actions of the fighters in Libya, especially their raid on the town of al-Fuqaha and their conduct of a “war of attrition” in their attacks on enemy infrastructure and supply lines, as well as the attackers of the az-Zulfi police station in Saudi Arabia, hoping for more such attacks.
This provides further support for the longstanding assessment, supported by evidence from conflict zones, that with the demise of the “physical Caliphate” of IS in Syria and Iraq, the group has shifted its strategy toward asymmetric warfare. This means that, at least at the current stage, the group will not be attempting to regain territory and revive its government or country-like structure. Instead, it will be focusing primarily on conducting attacks varying from small-scale hit-and-run to large-scale raids, to maximize enemy casualties on the one hand, and minimize the militants’ exposure and thus potential casualties in their ranks on the other.
Al-Baghdadi seeking to portray himself as a combat leader, successor of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Al-Baghdadi himself makes an effort to bolster the image of the organization now being active as a guerilla group. Namely, al-Baghdadi is seen with an assault rifle and combat gear as if to imply that he is now a combat leader and not just a political and spiritual leader. Notably, the type of rifle, an AKS-74U, is the exact same model traditionally seen with Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the group that preceded IS, indicating that al-Baghdadi is also trying to draw a parallel between himself and the two revered jihadist leaders. Another important factor is that the room in which al-Baghdadi is sitting is covered entirely by white sheets. This is based on tradecraft adopted by Osama bin Laden and meant to protect operational security (OPSEC) and prevent giving out any clues that could be used to geolocate the area in which he is staying, thus fortifying that the group is now operating covertly and underground, as opposed to the recent past when it was operating more overtly and as a state-like and military-like entity.
Al-Baghdadi (left) Osama bin Laden (center) and al-Zarqawi (right) with the same firearm and a sheet covering their surroundings
Al-Baghdadi highlights role in countries other than Iraq and Syria to project image of global success and encourage bolstering activity there
Most of the regions referred to by name by al-Baghdadi in the video, aside for Baghouz, are areas outside of the “core territory” of IS in Syria and Iraq. This includes the aforementioned references to Sri Lanka, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, but also congratulating the “brothers from Burkina Faso and Mali for joining the Caliphate”, as well as welcoming the groups in Khorasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran) who joined the “Mujahideen”. This is meant to project a sense that, despite the loss of its core territory, IS is continuing to grow and is successful in other regions around the world.
This point is also highlighted by the fact that the only seemingly living person al-Baghdadi names throughout the video is Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahraoui, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which has merged with the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) in recent months. In addition to the gesture showing great respect to al-Sahraoui and bolstering the image of Africa and its importance to IS, there are two other important factors. First, that al-Baghdadi is trying to dispel the persistent rumors that al-Sahraoui has been killed by stating “we ask Allah that he may protect…our brother Aba al-Walid al-Sahraoui”, implying that he is still alive. Second, that it comes amid other persistent rumors that the leader of ISWAP, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, has been relieved from leadership of the group. Taken together with ISGS merging with and possibly coming under ISWAP, this may serve as an indication that al-Sahraoui is now the leader of ISWAP, though this still remains unclear.
Since al-Baghdadi realizes that it will be difficult to rebuild his forces in Syria and Iraq in the coming months and possibly years, he wants to bolster IS’s strength in other parts of the world, something that has been evident for months as the group has been calling on its supporters to make “Hijra” (religious immigration) to countries other than Iraq and Syria. To serve this purpose, al-Baghdadi has to emphasize the importance of these other countries in order to attract more supporters to go there, as they are often perceived as less desirable destinations for jihad.
Video hints at current organizational structure to underscore global outreach
The video concludes by al-Baghdadi reviewing 12 notebooks with the names of IS affiliates. These are, by order, Wilayat Iraq, Wilayat al-Sham (Syria), Wilayat Khorasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran), Wilayat West Africa, Wilayat Sinai, Wilayat Libya, Wilayat Somalia, Wilayat Yemen, Wilayat Central Africa, Wilayat Caucasus, Tunisia, and Wilayat Turkey.
In IS’s terminology, “Wilaya” is a reference to a region in which a direct local affiliate purportedly has any of the following or a combination of them: territorial control, control over a population and at least a basic governmental structure. In this context, the fact that Tunisia did not have the Wilayat prefix (as has been the norm in IS claims thus far) is further indication that IS does not presume to have any of the above in the country, and that in their view Tunisia is currently strictly an area of attacks. Additionally, this is the first time an official reference was ever made to a “Wilayat Turkey”, whereas in IS attacks in the country, the last officially claimed one being the attack against a nightclub in Istanbul on New Years 2017, it was referred to only as “Turkey”. Despite the lack of overt IS offensive activity in Turkey, there is widespread logistical activity by the group in the country, with this gesture by al-Baghdadi denoting the strategic significance the country maintains in the group’s structure.
al-Baghdadi reviewing a notebook titled “Wilayat Turkey”
There are two other notebooks left at the feet of the companions, however their titles are not visible. At least three known IS affiliates: East Asia, Algeria, and (mainland) Egypt were missing from al-Baghdadi’s review. It is possible that any of the two, with East Asia being the highest likelihood given its overall success, are the two notebooks left by the companions, and that at least one of the two others are officially considered disbanded by the central leadership, most likely Algeria given its inactivity in recent years. That being said, it cannot be ruled out that the two other notebooks are of different regions that IS is trying to maintain a secret and therefore are not exposed.
Overall, the point of this staged scene is twofold. First, to underscore IS’s global operations and presence, and second, to project an image that the group still maintains a centralized command structure in which sub-organizations conduct operations in their regions but all report back and fall under the direct command of al-Baghdadi.