By Giorgio Cafiero
May 1, 2019
On April 29, the so-called caliph of
Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in an 18-minute
propaganda video published by Al Furqan media network. In his first public
appearance since the summer of 2014, Baghdadi covered a host of issues,
including recent events. He addressed IS’s loss of Baghouz (the group’s last
stronghold in Syria), the Easter terror bombings in Sri Lanka, political
developments in Algeria and Sudan, the Israeli prime minister’s recent
re-election, as well as IS’s franchises in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Libya,
The video put an end to rumours about the
IS leader being dead, injured, extremely ill, or having had plastic surgery.
Baghdadi’s appearance contradicted past reports that he’d been killed by the
Russian military. But beyond communicating to the world that Baghdadi is still
alive and appears healthy, the video had other important objectives.
The video was taken in a room that was not
being jolted by bombs. The leader of IS did not appear under duress. For the
caliph, constantly demonstrating his ability to govern is essential. Making a
video while appearing to be on the run would shatter this image. Rather, he
wants to give the appearance that he is secure, calm, optimistic, and confident
despite years of major military powers bombarding IS-controlled land and
infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.
With Ramadan coming up soon, Baghdadi’s
appearance was probably intended to inspire IS followers to carry out “lone
wolf” attacks across the globe during the Holy Month. Last month, IS declared
its first attack in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the group’s
franchise in Libya re-emerged as a deadly force since Khalifa Haftar’s
offensive on Tripoli began. With this video, Baghdadi likely sought to give a
morale boost to such offshoots and affiliates in distant lands. Doing so serves
to emphasize how, even if the caliphate lost its physical state in Iraq and
Syria, the narrative of ISIS continues to inspire jihadists worldwide.
Baghdadi’s reference to the terror bombings
in Sri Lanka was important. The video was an opportunity to take credit for the
bombings as well as a reminder that IS remains the dominant global jihadist
terror group. His video likely sought to inspire those in Iraq and Syria who
believed in IS’s purpose to have faith that the physical caliphate will be
re-established later. Baghdadi expressed solidarity with IS fighters who fought
in Baghouz, Raqqa, and Sirte where the Caliphate suffered defeats. Baghdadi
stated that the ISIS members who engaged in combat in those battles did so with
honour and courage, refusing to surrender while willing to die to slow down
With the Arab world undergoing important
transitions, Baghdadi seized on the chance to insert his voice into public
discourse about protests in Algeria and Sudan. Calling both Abdulaziz
Bouteflika and Omar Hassan al-Bashir tyrants, Baghdadi made a bid to win the
“hearts and minds” of Algerians and Sudanese, particularly those dissatisfied
with how the political transitions are unfolding in Algiers and Khartoum and
who are possibly vulnerable to the trap of radicalization.
Baghdadi’s optimism about IS’s ability to
make a comeback in some form may be well placed. The conditions in western Iraq
and eastern Syria that IS exploited years ago have not improved. The Syrian
regime’s current policies closely resemble those of the 1980s when Hafez
al-Assad was at the helm. Damascus is dealing with suspected terrorists without
regard to the rule of law and with rampant torture—and it doesn’t appear to be
on the verge of changing its conduct. Within this context of extremely harsh
oppression on top of widespread fuel shortages that are shaping “post-conflict”
Syria’s realities, the narrative of IS will remain powerful while deep
political, economic, and social crises provide fertile ground for extremists.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a
Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he
also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor.
From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence
consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University
of San Diego.