ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared on a pulpit in a Mosul, Iraq, mosque in June 2014 to announce his new caliphate. The event was broadcast around the world, and marked a turning point for a terror group that President Barack Obama had initially dismissed as the “JV.” Then, Baghdadi seemed to disappear.
In the time since that last appearance, Baghdadi and ISIS have seen their once sizable caliphate reduced to rubble thanks to the efforts of a coalition of more than 20 nations. The organization once laid claim to a mini-empire dominating millions of people; just a few weeks ago, it lost control of its last remaining Syrian village near the Iraqi border. Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed, and still more have been captured. All the while Baghdadi remained out of sight; save for a few audio recordings that were hard to date, he became something of a ghost. His absence sparked a cottage industry of speculation based on anonymous government officials, mostly in Iraq and Syria, who claimed he’d been killed or badly wounded.
But that narrative was turned on its head Tuesday, when Baghdadi appeared in an 18-minute Islamic State video release, chubbier and grayer than we’d last seen him, to discuss Israel’s elections, coups in Algeria and Sudan, and the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people. But more than any single talking point, Baghdadi proved that he is indeed alive and, seemingly, perfectly healthy. While the video is certainly dramatic, its implications on ISIS are less clear, namely because Baghdadi didn’t address the question security officials across the globe continue to grapple with: Is he still really in command of ISIS?
From a tactical standpoint, Baghdadi and his inner circle are unlikely to hold much sway over ISIS’s operations, according to a Belgian intelligence counter-terror analyst who monitors the group and investigates European ISIS attacks. With multiple armies hunting them and the weight of U.S., Russian, Israeli, and even Iranian intelligence closely monitoring all the group’s correspondences throughout Syria and Iraq, communicating electronically would be incredibly risky. Most likely, Baghdadi is shuffling around a series of remote villages in the Iraqi desert, still able to draw on covert support from much of the remote, deeply conservative Sunni villages that span the desert border area.
“Not getting killed is a full-time job for him at this stage.”
“Unlike the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden, we have a pretty good idea where Baghdadi and the remaining leadership of Daesh are,” says the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity and used the Arabic term for ISIS. “They’ve gone to ground in the movement’s original heartland of Sunni villages in the space between Iraq and Syria. Not getting killed is a full-time job for him at this stage; he’s going to have a very tough time leading an organization if he can’t touch electronic devices and can only work through very restraining [operational security].”
Baghdadi himself acknowledges his precarious situation in the video, noting that any effort to build an international caliphate must be a generational one — in other words, he admits such a goal could never be accomplished in his lifetime. Baghdadi also argues that the loss of ISIS’s physical dominion is a sort of blessing in disguise, as it inspired followers to take up the fight at home, without an easily disrupted centralized leadership.
There’s nothing new about this face-saving tactic: Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pulled the same stunt after Al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would become ISIS) lost control of Fallujah to U.S. forces in November 2004. It’s the lifecycle of an international terrorist organization, pure and simple. In both cases, military losses on the ground forced the terror group to establish a brand for jihadi followers around the world to act locally, with little direct support from their fugitive leadership in Iraq and Syria. (While Zarqawi was killed by a U.S.-led airstrike in 2006, his group had by that point grown to number in the thousands.)
“It’s clear that this appearance is to end rumors that he’s been killed or hurt and probably preempt any internal politics about whether he is in [the] condition or position to remain caliph,” says the Belgian analyst. “And he’s sending a signal to groups around the world that it’s their turn to take up the mantle of jihad and follow the path he built in the Middle East.”
The analyst notes that another purpose of the video was to make Turkey nervous — one of the folders Baghdadi was using as a prop during the video was ominously titled “Province of Turkey.”
“The Turks are going to want to raise some internal alerts,” the analyst says. “There could likely be an operation underway right now and a major attack in Turkey after implying its target would have a huge effect on internal morale.”
But already, as Aymenn al-Tamimi and Charlie Winter highlighted in The Atlantic, the group’s ability to at least inspire the attacks in Sri Lanka have set the stage for the next chapter for the group: an amorphous decentralized organization that combines its high-profile, pan-national goals with smaller local groups capable of planning and conducting attacks on their own. Given ISIS’s complex and wide-reaching network, it doesn’t really matter if Baghdadi is alive. The terror group is decentralized: Its power has been limited, but it’s also now less predictable.
Mitchell Prothero is columnist for Reuters TV