Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may own a luxury watch. Here’s why that doesn’t matter.


This image taken from video posted on a militant Web site purports to show the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.  (Islamist Web site via Associated Press)

This weekend, a video posted online appeared to show something very rare: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the enigmatic leader of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State, making a speech.

For Baghdadi to make such an appearance and allow it to be filmed seems to be highly unusual -- not long ago, two photographs of the man were known to exist, and he was notorious for avoiding the spotlight. The new video may offer a rare chance to not only see the man, but also hear him talk, and see how he presents himself.

Dressed in black and sporting a thick beard, the man who appeared to be Baghdadi was speaking to followers at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul. As Hassan Hassan, a columnist with the National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, pointed out on Twitter, Baghdadi's attire appeared designed as a nod to the Abbasid Caliphate, a Baghdad-led caliphate that is associated with the golden age of Islam. To many observers, however, one detail stood out more than anything else the Islamic State leader wore: his watch.

The chrome timepiece may seem incongruous when contrasted with his appearance and the setting, and London's Daily Telegraph speculates that the watch may not have come cheap — it appeared to have been either a Rolex or an Omega Seamaster, Oliver Duggan reports, with a potential price tag in the thousands of dollars.

A knee-jerk reaction might suggest that a luxury watch contradicts Baghdadi's message. He has become famous for leading the Islamic State, which controls a vast swath of land between Syria and Iraq and has declared a new caliphate purportedly modeled on the Islamic empires of old. In the speech made in the video, the man who appeared to be Baghdadi thanks God for the caliphate's return and directly dismisses materialism.

“I do not promise you what the kings and rulers promise their subjects and followers — luxury and security and leisure,” Baghdadi says. “But I promise what God promises those who believe in him.”

But is the watch really such a surprise? The Islamic State's leader doesn't appear to have grown up with the wealth and connections that his mentor, Osama bin Laden, did, but in the past few years Baghdadi has become well known for his fundraising prowess -- during an interview with the Guardian newspaper last month, one official estimated that the group may have more than $2 billion in finances.

It seems unlikely that Baghdadi bought the watch in a store: For one thing, U.S. officials don't believe he has ever traveled outside Syria or Iraq, and, having taken over much of Iraq, the Islamic State has been able to loot a large number of goods. The group has paraded online the substantial military goods it has looted — both as a warning and an insult to its enemies — and bragged about its finances on Twitter. Showing off a luxury watch certainly fits in with that M.O.

Perhaps more importantly, focusing on the watch ignores the real takeaways from the video: Despite the rumors of Baghdadi's death, he seems to be very much alive — and keen to begin his position as "Caliph Ibrahim."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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