ISIS leader tries to rally supporters with claims of 'steadfastness' after battlefield defeats

In first video appearance since 2014, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi insists the loss of his caliphate is not the end of ISIS

COMBO- This combination of two images made from militant videos posted on militant websites shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his first public appearance in Mosul, Iraq on July 5, 2014, left, and at right, on Monday, April 29, 2019, being interviewed by his group's Al-Furqan media outlet. Al-Baghdadi acknowledged in his first video since June 2014 that IS lost the war in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz that was captured last month by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. (militant video via AP)

The video is a studied piece of militant Islamist theatre. In it, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi assumes the role of humble warrior, seated cross-legged in a grey robe and utility vest, conferring with three close companions.

Ostentatiously at his side is an AKS-74U assault rifle – a shortened AK-47 variant used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, where captured specimens were much-prized by Mujahedeen fighters. In Islamic militant circles, the weapon is sometimes called “the Osama”; the favoured sidepiece of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The rifle’s Islamist pedigree was further established by its appearance in propaganda videos by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’ predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In the video released by ISIS on Tuesday, Baghdadi's demeanour contrasts starkly with his only other public appearance, where he declared himself caliph from the minbar of Mosul's Al Nouri Mosque in front of hundreds of worshippers in July 2014.

There a finger-wagging Baghdadi assumed the mantle of religious leader, quoting the prophet’s father-in-law Abu Bakr and cloaking himself in black robes reminiscent of the Abbasid caliphs, whose 500-year reign from Baghdad encapsulated the golden age of Islamic civilisation.

In contrast, the “caliphate” declared by Baghdadi – which at its peak ruled over a population of 8 million people across a third of Iraq and Syria – was destroyed in less than five years. The hardships of this short era have marked the world’s most wanted man. Baghdadi’s beard, hennaed after the fashion of the prophet, has greyed. His face is now deeply lined.

A bearded man with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's appearance speaks in this screen grab taken from video released on April 29, 2019. Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters TV via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. THE AUTHENTICITY AND DATE OF THE RECORDING COULD NOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED BY REUTERS.

But his carefully staged and edited message was clear. Despite tribulations, the ISIS leader is alive and apparently well. And he wants the world to know that the organisation he heads is enduring and steadfast, a term he mentions a dozen times in the 18-minute video.

The year started disastrously for ISIS. After losing most of its territory in Iraq and Syria over the past three years, by January its supporters were encircled in a riverside hamlet in Syria's Deir Ezzour. The loss of Baghouz was particularly damaging from a propaganda angle as fighters from the once terrifying group were shown abject and defeated, surrendering by their hundreds to US-backed Syrian forces. Among the dead and captured were key members of the group's "Ministry of Media".

Baghdadi meanwhile has been notable mainly by his public silence at a time when many close to him have been killed or apprehended. His teenage son was reportedly killed in Homs last July, while his own death has been reported several times.

Despite reportedly being seriously wounded in an airstrike in 2015, Baghdadi today looks healthy. Likewise, while he acknowledged his group’s recent losses, he commended his followers for their “steadfastness”. The battle for Baghouz showed the "barbarism and brutality" of the West, he said, but “the battle of Islam and its people against the Crusaders and their followers is a long battle.”

In reality, the loss of its territory has been a serious but not fatal setback for ISIS. While it has lost much of its ability to raise funds along with its attraction as a destination for foreign recruits, a series of recent attacks and foiled attempts claimed by ISIS indicates that the group is successfully shifting towards a globalised insurgency.

The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, which killed at least 250 people, is one example of recent attacks claimed by ISIS. Saudi authorities last week thwarted an attack in which the would-be perpetrators produced an allegiance video remarkably similar to that released by the Sri Lanka attackers.

Other attacks have occurred in regions not historically afflicted by Islamist violence, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Elsewhere ISIS seems eager to capitalise on Islamist insurgencies fuelled by localised grievances, including in Burkina Faso, where a church was attacked on Sunday.

But to appear as an historic power with the ability to challenge the West and attract a global following, ISIS needs to portray itself as a monolithic entity, rather than a loose corpus of extremist ideology vague enough to appeal to fringe radicals motivated by any number of local injustices, real and imagined. For this reason, it is not only important for ISIS to claim responsibility for attacks after the fact, Baghdadi needs to appear to be leading his “nation of Islam.”

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, speaks from the balcony of a mosque in Iraq's second city, Mosul, in this still image taken from a video posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT OF THIS VIDEO, WHICH HAS BEEN OBTAINED FROM A SOCIAL MEDIA WEBSITE/File Photo

In his address, Baghdadi referred repeatedly to ISIS’ resilience and enduring global power. Of the defence of Baghouz, he said: "This steadfastness ripped out the hearts of the Crusaders, which increased their fury and hatred."

Key to the message is the portrayal of Baghdadi as the administrator of a centrally run insurgency. In the video, he says he has accepted pledges of allegiance from militants in Burkina Faso and Mali. Later, he pantomimes receiving monthly reports on activities in the various “provinces” of ISIS, including Somalia, Yemen, West Africa and the until now unknown “Turkey province”.

The video showed little of the editing flair that characterised earlier ISIS releases. It was published without subtitles or accompanying foreign language transcripts, unlike Baghdadi's previous audio release last August. Many of ISIS's formerly prolific media operatives were killed or captured in the defeat of Baghouz, including Mohammed Khalifa, who narrated the notorious 2014 Flames of War video and surrendered in January. In his address, Baghdadi acknowledged by name the death of other "knights of media", including Abu Abdullah Al Australi, a shadowy Australian believed to have served as ISIS propaganda chief.

While there is no overt indication of where the video filmed – the faces of the three other men are blurred and a sheet hangs behind them to obscure details of their surroundings – Baghdadi is believed to be hiding somewhere in western Iraq or across the border in Syria. Certainly the mats and bolsters he sits on are typical furnishings in this part of the world. With all the technology of US intelligence arrayed against him, from satellite surveillance to informants on the ground, the man with a $25 million bounty on his head is no doubt paranoid about security.

The video is recently recorded, with Baghdadi mentioning the protests in Algeria and Sudan that overthrew longstanding leaders. Sri Lanka though is only mentioned in a voiceover, suggesting the original video was conceived independently of that attack rather than in response to it. Likewise, Baghdadi does not mention the Christchurch mosque shootings in March.

The white supremacist gunman who killed 50 Muslims in New Zealand preached a similar narrative of a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West and likewise understood how to harness media to seize global attention.

But unless Baghdadi's appearance galvanises his supporters to immediate further action, his latest video is likely to provide only a temporary boost to his group’s credentials. Its impact stemmed from its novelty and he cannot replicate the same influence by simply producing another.