By Mitchell Belfer - Many commentators had assumed they had heard the last of the first Caliph. Russia’s 2017 claim to have air-struck Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to ashes and rumours from the front line of coup after coup from among the ranks of displaced ISIS fighters have been confronted with the hermit-leader’s not-so-triumphant television redux. Instead of climbing up the pulpit of the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Baghdadi has, apparently, climbed down into a windowless bunker. From there he reasserted his command over the territorial-less Islamic State vowing to retake and rebuild ISIS central.
In his 29 April 2019 appearance, the first in five years, Baghdadi is candid. He recognises ISIS’ defeat in Baghuz and claimed that the manner in which the battle was fought demonstrated ‘the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians towards the Muslim community,’ omitting, of course, his rape and murder through Iraq and Syria and the mass graves being unearthed throughout former ISIS-held lands. Baghdadi praised the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, that killed some 250 people, as ‘part of the vengeance that awaits the Crusaders and their henchmen,’ and linked it to the ISIS’ expulsion from Syria.
The video comes at a particularly interesting time. ISIS has been, largely, dismissed as a footnote — albeit a rabidly aggressive one — in the current regional political scene. Its loss of territory also spelt the loss of respect by the jihadis still floating around. Al Qaeda and an assortment of Turkey-backed Muslim Brotherhood groups (re: Ahrar Al Sham) and Iran’s Al Badr Organisation in Iraq have been recycling ISIS fighters, further diminishing the group’s capabilities—and finances. So, Baghdadi is attempting to construct a post-Caliphate reality and maintaining the leadership pyramid is central for uniting and directing ISIS cells. It may also be the only thing keeping Baghdadi alive. While rebel ISIS members did not manage to kill Baghdadi, they have tried. This rattled him and drove him to purge his closest leadership circles. The latest episode — culminated in a gunfight (07 January 2019) and forcing Baghdadi to flee Baghuz — was orchestrated by Abu Muhammad Al-Husseini Al-Hashimi, believed to be a distant cousin of Baghdadi. His televised appeal intended to reclaim the mantle of ISIS leadership and signal that plots against him had failed.
And, of course, there were threats. While the video referenced the collapse of Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir regime, the resignation of Abdulaziz Bouteflika in Algeria and Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election in Israel — events which all occurred between 09-22 April, indicating the video was made recently — Baghdadi reserved his animosity for France. Singling out and condemning Paris for its activities in West and North Africa, Baghdadi was likely passing on a coded message to the many sleeper cells in France—home to the largest European contingent of ISIS fighters. France remains vulnerable and has not been able to adopt adequate counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation strategies. The ISIS focus on France should raise more than eyebrows, it should raise alarm.
So, where is Baghdadi? Where does one of the most recognisable terrorist leaders with a $25 million reward on his head hide? While some support the ‘darkest place is directly under the light’ theory, it seems more likely that he slithered back over the border to Iraq, then crossed into Iran and was ferried — like so many before him — to the Tora Bora mountainscapes of Afghanistan. For each day of not hearing from Baghdadi there will be the instinct to write him, and ISIS, off as an aberration in the political life of the region and, indeed, the world. However, if modern history has taught us anything it is that the only solution to ISIS is its complete annihilation. But this will take political, military, intelligence and policing resources from a wide spectrum of, often competitive, actors. If ISIS is not destroyed now — while it is on the ropes — it will come back…with a vengeance. The only real option is cooperation. Europe and the US need to better engage with the Arab countries across the Middle East. Jordanian intelligence is on the ground and very capable, Bahrain and the UAE lead the way in interdicting terrorism finance and Iraqi Kurds are doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of fighting ISIS and processing captured fighters. They need increased assistance to contain and eradicate ISIS and find, kill or arrest Baghdadi. Even without a home territory, ISIS remains a potent guerrilla force seeped in a hateful ideology. If Europe and the US are serious about bringing this long war on terrorism to an end, this is the crucial junction.
02 May 2019