In spite of Russia's claims that its forces had killed him in 2017, apparent footage of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi emerged on Monday. This is a major development, proving that the ISIS leader is alive, and that his terrorist organisation still poses a significant threat. Al Baghdadi has not been seen in public since 2014, when he proclaimed ISIS's so-called caliphate from Mosul's Al Nuri Mosque. Back then, ISIS was growing in size and prominence, seizing land across Iraq and Syria. Now, the terror group is militarily defeated – and increasingly desperate. The self-proclaimed caliph has aged visibly since 2014, his dyed beard revealing patches of grey. Likewise, ISIS's strategy of territorial conquest has not aged well. The group lost all of its Iraqi territory in 2017 and its last redoubt, Baghouz in Syria, fell in March.
Although weakened in the region, the group’s ideas live on in pockets across the globe. In the video, Al Baghdadi accepted oaths of allegiance from local groups in Afghanistan, and in Mali and Burkina Faso. Mention of the latter two nations forms part of a worrying trend of rising extremist violence in West Africa. On the day that Baghouz fell, for instance, the Islamic State West Africa Province killed 23 soldiers in Chad.
Although Al Baghdadi acknowledged the demise of ISIS as a proto-state, he also claimed the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, which left 253 people dead and 500 injured, as revenge for the fall of Baghouz. These words speak to the enduring threat of ISIS, and the contemporary nature of the footage. By associating ISIS with such brutal attacks, Al Baghdadi has performed a public show of strength, at a time when the group is at its frailest. But his statements also demonstrate how far the group has regressed, giving up on its dreams of world-domination and reverting back to an Al Qaeda-style terror network. The international community might have routed the organisation on the battlefield, but the same dedication must now be channelled into an altogether different battle: a struggle not for land, but against a poisonous ideology.