10 May 2019

In a Rare Video, Islamic State Leader al-Baghdadi Seeks to Divert Attention From His Group's Losses

The recording confirms that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, is in hiding but still alive. Al-Baghdadi is trying to ensure franchise groups and grassroots supporters remain loyal to the militant group.
Islamic State attacks are unlikely to return to the heavy volume seen during 2014 through 2016.

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In his first public video in almost five years, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a 19-minute recording released by the group's Al-Furqan media arm April 29. Al-Baghdadi hasn't been seen on video since he declared the establishment of the caliphate in June 2014, the only other time he's ever appeared on video. In contrast to his princely appearance in Mosul's great mosque in Iraq in the earlier video, he appeared disheveled and worn in the latest recording and was sitting on the floor in front of a white tarp covering the wall. But given the many false reports of his death over the past five years, this video does serve to demonstrate he remains alive.

The Big Picture

The massive losses suffered by the Islamic State core have had little impact on the Islamic State's various franchise groups, which have their own leadership and sources of funding and logistics. The core will attempt to project its terrorist capability beyond the Syria-Iraq battle space, but it will struggle to do so. This means that the Islamic State core will have to continue to rely more on its branches.

In the video, al-Baghdadi referenced the fall of President Omar al Bashir in Sudanand of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, as well as the April 21 Sri Lanka attacks, providing good time stamps and demonstrating that it was produced recently. He also noted the Islamic State's loss of Baghouz in Syria and said that the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were retribution for the losses. The video highlighted the group's activity in Africa, as al-Baghdadi accepted the pledges of loyalty (known in Arabic as bayat) from branches in Burkina Faso and Mali — which looped them into the Islamic State West African Province — and reviewed "reports" of Islamic State operational activity that included the newly named Central Africa Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is quite interesting that al-Baghdadi was shown receiving reports from Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya and Sri Lanka. Some have stated that this focus on successful attacks by the franchises demonstrates the group's vitality and global reach, but we believe it is really an attempt to divert attention from the core group's heavy losses and to ensure that the franchise groups and grassroots supporters remain loyal to the Islamic State pole of the jihadist universe. Many are saying that the video is a show of strength, but we believe it is more likely an act of desperation. His first video was released at a critical time for the core group, and we believe this video is evidence that they also view the current situation as critical.

Many are saying that the video is a show of strength, but we believe it is more likely an act of desperation.

While the video ostentatiously grouped the branches in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria under the Islamic State West African Province umbrella in name, there is no firm evidence of operational or tactical coordination between militants in Nigeria and the other two countries. The Islamic State core group has suffered considerable losses in Iraq and Syria. And while it remains a significant insurgent and terrorist threat in the region, it has fallen a long way from the heady days when it governed a considerable amount of territory and number of people.

We do not, however, believe that this video will elicit the same sort of widespread response among grassroots jihadists that Abu Mohammed al-Adnani's call to action did in September 2014. While attacks are still possible, especially with the coming of Ramadan, we do not expect to see a return to the heavy volume seen during 2014 through 2016.

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