ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has appeared in a video for the first time in nearly five years, hailing the Sri Lanka attacks that killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday, April 21, and urging his followers on after their territorial losses.
“The battle of Islam and Muslims with the Cross and its people is a long one,” the 47-year-old Iraqi commander begins, seated on a cushion on the floor in a nondescript room, addressing three supporters whose faces are concealed.
“The Battle of Baghouz has ended,” he states dispassionately, referencing what was the last enclave of his physical empire that had included swathes of territory spanning from Iraq to Syria and millions of people.
“And in [this battle] the barbarity of the people of the Cross against Muslims was obvious and the strength and bravery and endurance of Muslims was obvious as well,” he stresses.
“Despite how small this area was, and the ferocity of the attack and the siege, they have proven to the whole world that jihadists have the upper hand in their battles against infidels.”
That last bastion in northeastern Syria fell to US-backed Kurdish forces last month, four and a half years after Washington launched a global coalition with the aim of degrading and defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The new 18-minute video of Baghdadi, circulated Monday night, comes one week after his followers claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks against churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. An initial video claim for the Easter attacks, received by Asia Times, featured threats of future attacks in both Arabic and the local Tamil language. ISIS later issued a statement formally claiming responsibility.
Baghdadi, in his latest appearance, congratulates his followers in Sri Lanka for pledging allegiance to his caliphate.
This segment of the video appears to have been recorded separately, as he sounds like he is reading a prepared speech, and his voice is layered over a video of the eight purported Sri Lankan suicide attackers that has been circulated by ISIS.
“Your brothers in Sri Lanka have heartened the Muslim faithful with their strike operations, which shook the Crusaders on their Easter feast and made revenge for the brothers in Baghouz,” Baghdadi said.
“The number of dead and wounded is in the thousands, and this is part of the revenge that awaits the Crusaders and their minions, God willing,” he adds.
Caliph in hiding
Baghdadi’s last public appearance was in July 2014, when he proclaimed himself caliph from the Iraqi city of Mosul. In a video distributed at the time by ISIS, he was seen standing in a black robe and turban, his beard charcoal grey. He was last heard from nearly a year ago in an audio recording, encouraging his supporters to ignore territorial losses and to carry out attacks wherever they may find themselves.
In his new appearance, Baghdadi looks decidedly more militaristic, an assault rifle propped against the wall behind him to his right and a khaki vest. The ends of his beard, now with a significant amount of white hair, are dyed with henna – a tradition in Sunni Islam.
Years before the fall of his physical empire, experts say the ISIS leader had hunkered down with his top command and most loyal fighters, most likely in the impenetrable Syrian desert region known as the Badia.
Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badri Al-Samarrai, is no stranger to hunkering down. As the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State in Iraq, and then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he has been blacklisted by the UN Security Council for the past decade.
Baghdadi currently shows no sign of serious injury, appears well-fed and is up-to-date on current events and new supporters. In the latest video, he calls on the “brothers” in Libya to remain “steadfast,” congratulates jihadists in Burkina Faso and Mali for pledging allegiance to his caliphate, and references Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s April 9 elections.
He also chastises Algerians and Sudanese for their civil movements.
“I think you followed the events of the fall of the dictators of Algeria and Sudan, but sadly people did not understand – until this moment – why they took to the streets and what they want. They are replacing dictators with other criminals, who will only be more vicious agains Muslims,” he lamented.
The only path forward, he insists, is holy war. “Only the sword will be effective with these dictators.”