The formal structure of ISIS has crumbled, but thousands of its fighters are believed to have gone underground — and the Sri Lanka attacks showed that its affiliates overseas can in 2019 kill double the number they killed in Paris in November 2015

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The video was published by al-Furqan, the media wing of the Islamic State (or ISIS), late evening India time on Monday. Its authenticity has not been questioned. The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks the online activity of ISIS and other jihadist groups, posted the video on its site, and said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had “reemerged in visual form” after his first video appearance in July 2014.

Al-Furqan “is part of ISIS’s central media ministry and is responsible for putting out some of the most important ISIS releases to date… as well as audio recordings of the group’s leadership”, Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for The New York Times, posted on Twitter. The publication of the video was preceded by a build-up by ISIS-linked channels that began on Sunday, promoting what would be the first video from al-Furqan Media Foundation since 2016.

CNN quoted Col. Scott Rawlinson, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting the ISIS, as saying they were “working to independently corroborate the validity of the video… reportedly showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”. The man in the 18-minute video, sitting crosslegged on the floor, leaning on a cushion with an assault rifle to his right, strongly resembles al-Baghdadi, if a little heavier than the man seen delivering a sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, nearly five years ago in the only other known video of the ISIS leader. (Some experts say he appeared in a video in 2008 too, but was wearing a mask.) His beard is a lot more grey than in the 2014 video, and hennaed from about halfway to the tips. Experts agree that it is indeed, al-Baghdadi, who is believed to be around 47 years old now.

Why has it been released now?
This is a key question because, as Callimachi tweeted, “Baghdadi has always maintained an extreme security protocol, which explains how he’s stayed alive since 2010, when he became emir of the Islamic State of Iraq.” He has taken “the enormous risk of showing his current appearance to rally his followers”, she suggested, “perhaps because the terror organization he leads is at an inflection point”.

Al-Baghdadi described the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter as revenge for the defeat in Al-Baghuz Fawqani in Syria, which was taken from ISIS in late March —the last remaining bit of territory of the Islamic proto-state he once ruled, as big as Great Britain at the height of its power in 2015, with millions of inhabitants across Iraq and Syria. “Our battle today is a battle of attrition, and we will prolong it for the enemy; they must know that the jihad will continue until Judgment Day,” he said in a translation of the video provided by SITE.

According to experts quoted in multiple media reports, al-Baghdadi was forced to reveal himself in order to underline that the military defeat notwithstanding, ISIS continued to exist and he remained its emir, and to warn that its fighters would keep staging attacks indefinitely.

In June 2017, Russia claimed he had been killed in an airstrike near Raqqa, Syria; two weeks later, the mostly reliable Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported “confirmed information” that al-Baghdadi was dead. He has proved now that he is not dead, and not crippled.

 “Baghdadi has remained off the grid for so long that his sudden appearance will very likely serve as both a morale boost for ISIS supporters and remaining militants and as a catalyst for individuals or small groups to act,” The New York Times quoted Colin P Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organisation for global security issues, as saying. “He is essentially reasserting his leadership and suggesting that he sits atop the command-and-control network of what remains of the group, not only in Iraq and Syria, but more broadly, in its far-flung franchises and affiliates.”

The formal structure of ISIS has crumbled, but thousands of its fighters are believed to have gone underground — and the Sri Lanka attacks showed that its affiliates overseas can in 2019 kill double the number they killed in Paris in November 2015. In an interview given to The Indian Express soon after she finished her reporting assignment in Baghuz, Callimachi said: “…ISIS lives on and today it is much stronger than it was in 2011, when American troops pulled out of Iraq and the group was considered defeated. At that point, CIA estimated that the group had just 700 fighters. Now according to General Joseph Votel [the top US general overseeing military operations in the Middle East], it has tens of thousands of fighters, and is present as a physical insurgency in Iraq and Syria and remains as deadly and as destructive a terrorist forces as it was.”

Besides its thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has a Khorasan province and provinces in the Philippines and West Africa, Callimachi said, and it was “strong and growing in Afghanistan”. “These are groups that are robust on the ground and there is enough evidence to suggest that there is connective tissue between the affiliates and ISIS’s core group in Iraq and Syria.”

Where is al-Baghdadi now?
It is not known. He released an audio message in 2018, but his location was not clear. Multiple US agencies are hunting him, and some analysts believe he is hiding in the sparsely populated desert along the Iraq-Syria border, using no electronic devices that would give him away. Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi al-Muntafiki was quoted as saying Tuesday that the video was recorded in a “remote area”, but did not mention a country. It was unclear when the recording was done, but the parts that refer to recent events like the Sri Lanka attacks, the Israel elections, and the toppling of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, are on audio, not video, which suggests the video was made earlier, and newer audio portions were added subsequently.

(Adapted from The Indian Express)