Baghdadi Is Alive — and so is the ISIS Narrative

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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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, and Mali.

The video put an end to rumors 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 honor and courage, refusing to surrender while willing to die to slow down enemy advances.

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.