The reappearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The reappearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
© ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

On April 29, a new video appeared of ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is the first such Baghdadi video in nearly five years, when he announced the creation of the Islamic State from the pulpit of the Great Mosque of Mosul. The juxtapositions abound. The Great Mosque that stood for nearly 1,000 years is now destroyed. Like locusts, ISIS destroyed everything it touched, mosques, ancient sites from civilizations long dead, and hundreds of thousands of lives — some forever ended, or many more disrupted.  

The imagery of al-Baghdadi speaking to scores of followers from an elevated minbar in the Great Mosque of Mosul, compared to picture of him in a video sitting on a floor with no audience, paints a telling portrait of the ISIS leader’s steep fall. Intelligence analysts around the world no doubt are conducting voice and facial analysis to determine whether the video was genuinely delivered by al-Baghdadi. This will take time, but it is safe to assume that the video is authentic.

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What else can we glean from it? What does the red henna in al-Baghdadi’s beard mean? Yes, it is a common for devout Salafists, especially during Ramadan, to use red henna but that is seemingly an innocuous detail. In Syria and Iraq the application of red henna is less prevalent than in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and in Yemen. No doubt intelligence analysts are thinking about whether the video provides something less innocuous — perhaps a clue about whether he has relocated. Where al-Baghdadi is hiding is important for efforts to decapitate ISIS’s leadership but, strategically, how vital is it really to remove al-Baghdadi?  

What the video makes stark is that al-Baghdadi now is far less relevant than he ever has been.  His communication style is neutered. Old-guy terrorists sitting on floors in front of nondescript backdrops with AK-47s harkens to two things: a 1980s vintage Guns and Ammunition photo shoot, and Ayman al-Zawahiri video-making, post-Osama bin Laden’s death. Young, would-be terrorists are unlikely to be motivated by al-Baghdadi’s recent message. It is unpolished, dry and no doubt designed to display relevancy in the wake of the deadly Sri Lanka Easter attacks. It is a clear “Hey, don’t forget about me. I am still here, guys” message.

Yet, strangely enough, the video remains dangerous — though not for the reasons you think.  Yes, perhaps there is a hidden message in the video that could awaken ISIS sleeper cells everywhere based on al-Baghdadi’s message. However, this seems unlikely and less of a danger than the miscalculation that may come with U.S. policymaker self-analysis of the video. Some policymakers will see the video and believe that al-Baghdadi is less relevant and thus assume ISIS poses less of a threat. While the first part is true, the second is not.

ISIS remains relevant not because of al-Baghdadi but in spite of him. First, the organization retains an effective and diverse communication structure highlighted by its al-Naba weekly newsletter. Al-Naba is a glossy, graphic-laden publication that is attractive to a younger audience. The ISIS self-styled news agency al-Amaq informs supporters of breaking ISIS attacks. These communications are more effective in animating action-minded audiences than stale static videos.

Second, ISIS likely remains the richest terrorist in the world. According to a February 2019 United Nations report, ISIS may have financial reserves of $50 million to $300 million. These assets will continue to facilitate ISIS’s world-wide operations and non-operational support, such as food and shelter, to the group’s membership.

Third, the group’s large network of formal provinces, such as ISIS-Sinai and ISIS-Libya, and more informal networks, such as ISIS-Greater Sahara and ISIS-East Asia, allow the group to project a threat of outsized proportions.  

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The propaganda, the money and the affiliates all can operate effectively without the need of a direct order from al-Baghdadi. They are self-sustaining largely because of the complex bureaucracy ISIS has created. Sub-organizations such as ISIS’s Immigration and Logistics Committee allow the organization to integrate hidden supply-chain networks with administrative and operational components of the organization. It is this heavily disguised movement of propaganda, money and people that allows for ISIS to pose a sustained threat.

The greatest danger for senior officials is to diminish the prioritization of countering ISIS because it has no territory and a heavily constrained leader. The United States and the 79-member global coalition to defeat ISIS would do well to continue its five-themed focus:

  • stabilize liberated areas;
  • counter ISIS’s propaganda;
  • deny the organization safe haven;
  • track the flow of returning foreign fighters; and
  • continue to drain ISIS’s financial resources.  

This won’t be easy and it will require ISIS’s continued elevation as a national security threat. It will require a steady U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq. And, most of all, it will require robust information-sharing between countries about both the direct and indirect threat ISIS and its sympathizers pose. The risk of underestimating the threat or not responding to clear evidence of ISIS-linked attack planning will prove disastrous and result in the tragic loss of innocent lives, as recently witnessed in Sri Lanka.

The United States and its partners must work diligently to disassemble ISIS’s underlying bureaucratic structure that allows it to function globally. This will require laser-focused patience and a resolve to act on information.  

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He was a member of the staff of former Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.). Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.