The Islamic State (ISIS) released a video of about 18 minutes on Monday, 29 April 2019, in Arabic, entitled “In the Hospitality of the Emir of the Believers”, in which the shadowy leader of the jihadist organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appears as the absolute protagonist.
It is important to note that the last speech Baghdadi released, only in audio format, was in August 2018. Baghdadi’s last appearance in a video was on Friday, 4 July 2014. On that occasion Baghdadi, in a famous sermon at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, announced the foundation of the “Caliphate”, proclaimed a week earlier, on Friday, 29 June (the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan that year) by the organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.
The timing of the publication of the two Baghdadi videos — the only ones that show him directly in over a decade — deserves attention. The 2014 video solemnly celebrated the establishment of the “Caliphate”. The last video instead appears only a few weeks after the territorial collapse of that jihadi proto-state. It is also worth noting that the latest video’s release is coincident with the imminent start of Ramadan (6 May 2019), a month that in recent years has been used by ISIS for propaganda and an uptick in terrorism.
The publication of a video by Al-Furqan, the oldest and most important media wing of ISIS, was in itself notable since, as has been noted, nearly all recent media releases by the channel have been in audio format. The video, teased a day earlier, is the first video from Al-Furqan since “The Structure of the Caliphate”, back in July 2016.
Obviously, the first piece of information that emerges from the video is that the leader is still alive. Baghdadi, probably the most wanted man on the planet, has been reported dead, or at least seriously injured, several times in recent years, in particular by Russian sources. Supposed defectors from ISIS have recently described Baghdadi as “extremely thin and his beard … whiter”. To the contrary, in the video he appears in good health; he has gained weight and his beard is dyed with henna.
Second, Baghdadi appears to be still firmly at the top of the entire organization, presented as strong and compact. It is important to emphasize that in violent covert organizations, maintaining internal discipline is often particularly demanding and complicated.
In an unspecified location, the leader, sitting cross-legged in a bare closed place, calmly speaks to three ISIS officials, whose faces are obscured. They listen to him in silence. The entire video is quite simple and sober and the monologue has a formal and dry style. Baghdadi looks more like a military commander of an insurgent group than a glorious “caliph”. Having him in this particular setting conveys that while he has gone underground, he is not a lonely, out-of-touch fugitive.
Next to him appears in evidence a rare Soviet AKS-74U assault rifle with a large magazine. The weapon does not stand out clearly for its modernity and practical usefulness, but for its deep symbolic value in the jihadist imagination; before Baghdadi that model was also exhibited by Osama Bin Laden and by ISIS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Furthermore, on closer inspection, the whole set design recalls the video of Zarqawi (“A Message to the People”), published in April 2016, where he first appeared to his soldiers — just a few weeks before he was killed.
Some references to recent events — the fall of longtime rulers in Algeria and in Sudan; the elections in Israel — suggest that the video might have been recorded towards the middle of April 2019.
The leader focuses on the recent past, presenting more on the situation of the armed group and less on its future direction. Among other things, he recalls the defeat in the battle of Baghouz, the last stronghold of the jihadist organization, on the border between Syria and Iraq, which fell on 23 March 2019.
Baghdadi says the result at Baghouz is less important than the motivations and the commitment of the individuals involved. “The bravery, tenacity and steadfastness of the Muslim umma (nation or community” as opposed “the savagery and brutality of the nation of the cross” is what counts, says Baghdadi. This focus on manhaj (methodology) is standard from ISIS: the group believes it revived after 2008 because it stuck to the correct path ideologically, not because of any special military tactics.
A few minutes are then devoted by the caliph to commemorating the fallen, mentioning thirteen militants, including some Western fighters, by name. Baghdadi claims ISIS has carried out “92 operations in eight countries” to avenge these fallen men, and congratulates the militants who have recently carried out a raid in Fuqaha, a desert town in central Libya.
Baghdadi next accepts the oath of allegiance (bayʿa) from groups in Burkina Faso and in Mali, and encourages attacks against France and its allies in the Sahel. He also accepts the bayʿa of members of organizations in “Khorasan” (Afghanistan-Pakistan).
Baghdadi praises the perpetrators of the Easter suicide bombing operations in Sri Lanka, claiming it is revenge for the loss of Baghouz, and says the same of the attack that was foiled in Saudi Arabia. The two-minute section of the video showing images of those the attacks in Sri Lanka, and the two videos where the ISIS operatives claim responsibility for them, are clearly not connected to the face-to-face lecture and might therefore have been added later.
The recent massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand — which some officials in Sri Lanka speculated was the trigger for the terrorist attacks — is not mentioned by Baghdadi.
At the end of the video, the ISIS leader is physically given some reports on the various Wilayat (“Provinces”) of the organization in the world, including the apparently new Wilaya of Turkey. There is also file on “Tunisia”, but it does not include the reference to a specific Wilaya. These scenes probably serve to show that the project of ISIS, which the leader follows personally and actively, has a global nature and is even in the process of expansion, despite the military defeat in Syria and Iraq.
In short, Baghdadi’s speech at first glance does not present any very novel content. His reference to the “war of attrition” continuing, despite the territorial losses, and the span of the struggle being a long one — “God ordered us to wage jihad and did not order us to victory” — are messages ISIS has been pumping out for three years. However, as said before, it is important to stress that with several references to different regions and continents, the ISIS leader outlined a project of expansion on a global scale, beyond the Fertile Crescent, even to countries like Sri Lanka that do not have a deep-rooted jihadi infrastructure.
The ISIS leader appearing in person after almost five years is clearly meant to boost the morale of his fighters and sympathizers. One the one hand, it is perhaps significant that this intervention comes at a moment when tensions and disputes within the group are reportedly on the rise after the collapse of the ambitious proto-state project. There was even a reported coup within ISIS in January 2019 (though exactly what happened remains unclear). On the other hand, the self-proclaimed “caliph” does not make any relevant mention to doctrinal or theological issues, and, so far, Baghdadi has given every appearance of being able to impose his will over his organization.
Terrorist organizations such as ISIS operate in conditions of secrecy to preserve their security, but have to simultaneously have to be visible in order to maintain relations with the social environment and achieve their political goals. In their messaging, terrorists have to address three main audiences: enemies, their support community, and third parties. Thus, they find themselves managing a complex and delicate balance between the need for concealment and display.
Normally the degree of secrecy grows from the periphery to the center of the terrorist organization. This fact often forces the leaders of the organization to hide in a sort of sancta sanctorum, distant from the surrounding environment. At the same time, leaders, especially if recognized authoritative and/or endowed with communication skills, can commit themselves to directly promote the cause and increase the consensus of the organization.
At the top of the clandestine group, therefore, the trade-off between secrecy and visibility manifests itself with maximum intensity. Faced with this dilemma, many terrorist leaders prefer to take risks. For example, Yasser Arafat, the charismatic chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had a “huge appetite for publicity” and used to give regular interviews to the Western media as his forces run riot in Lebanon, even at the risk of inadvertently providing valuable information about his person or the entire underground organization. More recently, Osama Bin Laden, decided to appear in several videos and audio recordings, even after 11 September 2001, knowing that they would be analyzed with the utmost attention by counter-terrorism agencies around the world, eager to track him down.
Baghdadi, an introvert man without outstanding communication skills, has opted for a very different path, preferring secrecy and security over publicity and visibility. With few exceptions, he has not personally and directly played a key role in the vast, continuous and sophisticated propaganda campaign of the group. Besides, although Baghdadi has cultivated a measure of charismatic authority, ISIS under his rule has become a large, bureaucratic organization, without a need for a cult of personality around his leadership to keep it together.
When looking at the secrecy/visibility trade-off, “In the Hospitality of the Emir of the Believers” marks a critical juncture for the jihadist organization. ISIS’s reclusive leader has taken a rare risk at an unusual moment: unlike in 2014, when ISIS held vast territory and could reasonably dictate the environment, in 2019 the “Caliphate” is gone and Baghdadi is having to move around clandestinely in a hostile environment patrolled by the most powerful military in the world. It remains to be seen if the frequency of Baghdadi’s media appearances will change significantly in the future.