Baghdadi is back, but can he salvage ISIS?

ISIS leader mentions Israel's recent election.

A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The reclusive Islamic State leader appeared on a video on Monday, breaking with tradition and showing that he is very much alive despite the defeat of much of the Islamic State ‘caliphate’ in March. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is back.
Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times correspondent who covers ISIS noted online that the video was released by the al-Furqan network which part of ISIS and “responsible for putting out some of the most important ISIS releases to date.” For instance it had released a video of a Jordanian pilot being burned and other messages from ISIS leader. “This is literally only the second video he’s appeared in in more than a decade.”
What’s interesting here is that he references the Sri Lanka attack as a revenge for ISIS being defeated in Baghouz in March, it’s last bastion on the Euphrates. The video shows a healthy-looking Baghdadi with a red-colored beard. He looks in good shape and not dramatically different than his 2014 video in Mosul at the Nuri mosque. He appears with an AK-47. Three men sit to his left, one with a blurred face and a khaffiya, the others also with blurred faces but also having wrapped their faces. What this tells us is that they were concerned that even though the video was going to be blurred and edited they didn’t want to show their faces. So only two men really appear on this video, the other two are important but they want to remain in the shadows.
Hassan Hassan, contributing writer at The Atlantic notes that in the video Baghdadi calls the war one of “attrition” now. He references recent changes in power in Sudan and Algeria, attempting to show how recently he made the video and that he is concerned with regional affairs. He also mentions that Netanyahu “received the government of the Jews,” a reference to the recent Israeli election. The Sudanese military he calls a “tyrant” and he calls the previous regime a tyranny. He also publicly accepts the allegiance of ISIS groups in Mali Afghanistan and Burkina Faso. There was an attack on a church in Burkina Faso on Monday and ISIS claimed it had murdered a Canadian geologist in the country in early April. Of interest, Baghdadi allegedly also mentions Sahrawi jihadist Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. Sahrawi had been affiliated with Murabitoon, but swore allegiance to ISIS in May 2015. He battled Taureg militias and French forces in Mali in February 2018. Sahrawi and ISIS members have claimed recent attacks across the Sahel, including in Mali and Burkina Faso in March of this year, FDD’s Long War Journal notes.

Baghdadi, according to Hassan Hassan’s analysis, notes that his fighters did not give up but rather fought to the last in places like Raqqa, Mosul, Sirte and Baghouz. Sirte is in Libya, the rest of the battles were in Iraq and Syria. The fact is that in Baghouz thousands of male ISIS members surrendered, so Baghdadi’s claim is false. ISIS fighters also fled Raqqa under an agreement in 2017. Online Mosul did they really fight to the end, blowing up the Nuri mosque where Baghdadi had once spoke.
The video shows that the ISIS leader wants the world to know he is alive and that his “caliphate” has not disappeared. In recent months it has become common to predict a new ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. In addition the attack in Sri Lanka and other activity in Afghanistan, across southeast Asia and Africa point to continued ISIS threats. The threat has moved from the center in Iraq and Syria to the periphery. But ISIS now faces the problem Al Qaeda faced after it lost its Afghan base in 2002. It has no way to direct the extremists. ISIS may inspire attacks and may have a number of groups all over the world swearing allegiance. But it doesn’t have an army as it did before. ISIS fought a real conventional war from 2014 to 2019, besides also committing genocide and horrid crimes against humanity. It was able to fight against more than seventy countries in the Coalition for years. More than 50,000 of its fighters may have been killed, including tens of thousands from around the world. There are still more than 1,000 male ISIS foreign fighters now being detained in Syria, and tens of thousands of ISIS family members.
Baghdadi doesn’t seem to reference them. The foreign fighters are the leftovers, but not the attrition he speaks of. The attrition will happen in Iraq and Syria. But in Iraq ISIS now faces 190,000 Iraqis trained by the Coalition. In Syria it faces the Russians, Iranians, pro-Iranian militias and the regime on one side and the US and the SDF on the other. These are tough adversaries, even if ISIS finds niches to exploit. For instance it hides in caves in the Hamreen mountains in Iraq and in the desert in Syria. It can navigate the desert like an ocean, disappearing into the sand storms. But where are its thousands of cadres? Not in one place. It may have thousands of members, maybe tens of thousands, but they are not in one place as they were when ISIS was rising. If it returns its trajectory will take it a long time, just as the Taliban had to regroup after its loses in 2002. And ISIS may be different when it really re-emerges. Baghdadi, like Bin Laden hiding in his house in Abbotabad where he was found in 2011, can’t direct the global battle from where he is. If he was doing so, then he would likely be found eventually. So like a mafia don he must communicate personally and then wait. One thing is for sure, he is more healthy looking than Saddam Hussein living in that hole he was found inside in 2003, and appears more healthy than Bin Laden when he was taken down.