By Graeme Wood
April 29, 2019
Minutes ago, the Islamic State released a
video of the most wanted man in the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. No one has
seen him publicly since his infamous speech at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul,
Iraq, in July 2014. In today’s video, he is sitting cross-legged, with a white
sheet behind him and, nearby, an automatic rifle and a few tasteful cushions.
Sitting to one side, silently, are three masked men. Baghdadi speaks for about
12 minutes—calmly, simply, without any particular charisma—and his audience
listens attentively and silently.
From the video we learn that Baghdadi is
neither dead nor disabled. His condition was not a foregone conclusion: Russia
announced in 2017 that it blew him to smithereens in an air strike, and news
reports said that he suffered a crippling spinal injury. The latter is still
possible; Baghdadi doesn’t stand up or gesticulate in a way that demonstrates a
full range of motion. But this is not a Richard Simmons video, and we should
not interpret too much from his physical modesty. His hands look a little
anaemic, and his ear appears to be abnormally wrinkled, like a wrestler’s or a
cardiac patients. But overall, he does not look like someone who has been
hiding in a spider hole.
To establish his survival and current good
health, of course, he didn’t have to give much of a speech. Baghdadi mentions
many current events that establish the video as having been filmed this month.
He notes the defeat of his forces in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul over the past
couple of years and finally in Baghuz, Syria, only a month ago. He notes the
revolutionary protests in Algeria and Sudan, both of which are recent news. And
in a coda to the video, he praises the attackers behind the April 21 bombings
in Sri Lanka, saying that the Islamic State was retaliating for Baghuz (and
not, as Sri Lankan officials have suggested, for Christchurch).
But the content of Baghdadi’s speech is
less informative than his affect. The total number of words we have seen
delivered by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on video just doubled, and with that doubling
we get not only a new explicit message but also a new profile of the man. He is
not like Osama Bin Laden, who was the scion of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest
and most famous families, and who therefore could not control his public image.
Baghdadi, by contrast, managed his image carefully.
His sole previous appearance cast him in
terms familiar from early Islamic history. He quoted the Prophet’s successor
and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, likening himself to him; he wore the colours of
the Abbasids. He delivered a speech filigreed with religious terminology and
highfalutin religious diction and grammar. That self-presentation was almost comically
over-managed. This one probably is, too.
And what is the image Baghdadi is
attempting to project? That of a terrorist leader, an insurgent, a
shadow-leader of a subterranean movement of global reaches. He is wearing a
pocketed vest, the kind you rarely see a mullah wear but that insurgents and
fly fishermen wear all the time. The rifle by his side stresses the point. And
the message itself eliminates any doubt. The rhetoric no longer soars.
The language, while formal, does not take
on the pious diction of his previous speech, or most of the audio releases
since then. Back when Baghdadi ruled a state—complete with a well-armed
military, tax collectors, and health inspectors—he and his top deputy spoke
with grandiosity that inspired followers and irritated enemies. Now, as an
insurgent leader again, he has dispensed with the fanciness. He governed in
poetry; he terrorizes in prose.
With the fall of Baghuz, Baghdadi faced a
real danger of revolt. An absent caliph is not a caliph, his enemies said. (The
memory of Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, is fresh. His
followers kept their allegiance to him for years after his death. The Islamic
State ridiculed them for their zombie-like loyalty.) With this video, we know
that the caliph still lives, rules, and demands oaths from his followers. Some
of those followers followed him because they thought he would lead them in a
series of never-ending victories. Whether they continue to follow him, now that
he is an aging warlord holding court in front of a bedsheet, remains to be
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GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of The Way
of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.