Islamic State supporters awoke Thursday to a recording released by the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It was the first audio recording of the IS leader to surface in nearly a year, apparent proof the extremist leader is alive despite his group’s heavy losses on the battlefield and sporadic rumors of his death.
Baghdadi slammed Saudi Arabia’s pledge of $100 million in assistance to northwestern Syria, where his forces were ousted from their de facto capital Raqqa by US-backed Kurds less than a year ago. The Saudi pledge was announced last Friday, making Baghdadi’s recording less than a week old.
The nearly hour-long speech called on supporters to continue their jihad, and to carry out attacks in the West. Baghdadi also seized on Jordan, chastising the population for protests over bread — and telling them they should be rising up for jihad.
“Those who forget their religion, patience, jihad against their enemies … are disgraced,” Baghdadi said. “But when they hold on to it, they are strong and victorious, even if it takes time.”
The IS leader is no stranger to the waiting game.
His group took its foundations from the Islamic State of Iraq, which was formed by Sunni militants after the US invasion in 2003. The group found fertile ground to regroup amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, with Baghdadi announcing in 2013 the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State overran huge swathes of territory spanning the Iraqi and Syrian borders in 2014. That June, Baghdadi made his boldest move yet — giving a public sermon in the Iraqi city of Mosul and declaring himself caliph.
At its height, IS controlled a territory of some 10 million people, imposing austere interpretations of Islamic law, running military camps for children, and using public executions to bring the population under its heel.
In the years that followed, the militants met resistance from a spectrum of foes, from Russian-backed Syrian troops to US-backed Kurds to Iranian-backed paramilitaries. By December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced “victory” over the extremists. Days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin said IS had been defeated in Syria.
The group still holds pockets of territory and has shown its capability to stage bloody attacks, but no longer controls major population centers. In his latest recording, Baghdadi called on his followers to keep up the faith.
“The caliphate will remain, God willing,” he said.
Wassim Nasr, an analyst on jihadist movements with France 24, says the group would have been planning for its next phase since 2015, when it started losing ground on multiple fronts.
“Guerrilla warfare, the desert era, which they did very well between 2009 and 2013. They bet on the turmoil in states like Iraq and Syria and their enemies occupying themselves fighting each other… If you look how they evolved from the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011 until today — where people are in camps, cities are completely destroyed — once the military situation has calmed down, they have what it takes to come back,” he told the Asia Times.
Baghdadi, meanwhile, is not necessarily holed up in one of the last bastions of his men.
“Someone like him is very experienced about how to stay clandestine. He did it once he can do it all over again. What you should imagine is he doesn’t move like Arab leaders with 20 cars and shiny Mercedes,” said Nasr.
“He could be moving on the back of a camel in Anbar.”