Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Caliph and leader of the “Islamic State” surprised not only the world’s intelligence and media organizations but even his own followers with Thursday’s release of a new audio speech. This put a sharp stop to feverish claims that he had been killed or wounded in a recent air raid as the Iraqi government claimed, writes Abdel Bari Atwan.
The speech, which represented a confirmation that he was still alive, came much sooner than commentators expected and was not full of boasts about how he had dodged America’s bombardments but outlined the Islamic State’s strategy for the months – and even years – ahead. In this it was reminiscent of the statements the late Osama bin Laden used to periodically broadcast, outlining his intentions and issuing orders and instructions to his supporters.
Certainly the reason this was an audio, rather than a video, broadcast was to avoid giving global security outfits any pointers as to the possible whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man. Sophisticated analysis of videos can provide clues as to the type of equipment used, and, by the lighting conditions, the time of day and even possible location.
Like the al-Qaeda leadership, Baghdadi avoids any electronic forms of communication, including computer, mobile phone etc. and instead relies on messengers carrying oral or written instructions. The main danger to the Islamic State’s leadership is from spies and infiltrators.
The seventeen minute speech, which was available on all the main jihadist online media platforms, contains three main points (or claims):
First: that the Islamic State is expanding and has already entered Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Egypt (Sinai) – where the main jihadist groups recently gave their bayat to Baghdadi. As before Baghdadi threatened that the state would spread even as far as Rome. We don’t know why Rome rather than Vienna or other Western capitals, but it is possible because it is the focal point of the world’s Catholic Christians, just as Mecca is the focus for Muslims.
Second: Baghdadi directly menaced Saudi Arabia and urged supporters there to strike at the House of Saud: the “head of the snake” and the wellspring of all “disease”. KSA responded with a State of Emergency declaration and the deployment of 30,000 troops to their border with northern Iraq.
Third: Baghdadi urged the killing of “infidels” in what he called “the island”. These “infidels” are the Shiites, the Saudi ruling family and their troops of “Crusaders”. When the “infidels” have been “cleared” an a characteristically savage bloodbath, Baghdadi envisions the Islamic State absorbing Mecca and Medina, the two holy places of Islam.
Baghdadi also commented on the progress of the US-led coalitions war on Islamic State which he deemed unsuccessful. He urged on the next step which is ground war – as most analysts concur – and welcomed the recent deployment of an additional 1,500 US troops (bringing their number to 3,100) whom he threatens to kill.
Ground war means deaths and injuries, which the American public cannot stomach, and therein lies the weakness of the US President and his generals.
The Americans’ war strategy against the Islamic State has been wandering and confused. On Thursday President Obama administration began yet another review of strategy, refocusing on bringing down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and brokering a political transition in Syria. The call for review acknowledges that the former strategy – which envisioned defeating the Islamic State first in Iraq and then moving into Syria to confront them there – was miscalculated.
Obama is also constantly under pressure from his regional allies – Turkey and the Gulf States – whose main concern is the departure of Assad and the possibility of sending back home the millions of Syrian refugees they are hosting.
This audio address by al-Baghdadi is the first public speech he has given since he ascended the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mosul after the city’s seizure in June and is as significant. Six months on, what appeared to be the dream of a handful of fanatics has become a geographical reality incorporating millions, and drawing millions more under its gruesome banner.
Baghdadi has shown he can prevail against all the odds and his vow to expand through the region will not be seen as an idle threat and will have struck panic into the hearts of its leaders. We can expect redoubled efforts to block the further progress of the Islamic State and assassinate its leader.