Since losing control of its self-proclaimed caliphate, which spanned parts of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has slipped back to its guerrilla roots: Sleeper cells lie low and strike when they can. Crude bombs target security forces. Places of worship are singled out for mass-casualty attacks.
In the audio recording, Baghdadi urged supporters to “teach” Muslims about the Islamic State’s struggle and not to forget the followers who held out until the caliphate’s final weeks, before U.S.-backed forces trucked them to detention facilities and displacement camps.
“As for the worst and most important matter — the prisons, the prisons, oh soldiers of the caliphate,” Baghdadi said. “Your brothers and sisters, do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them.”
Tens of thousands of foreigners traveled to Iraq and Syria at the caliphate’s height, featuring prominently in the group’s propaganda as international fighters rolled into its territory. Thousands of the men are now in the custody of Iraqi authorities or U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
Tens of thousands more Syrian, Iraqi and third-country nationals are also penned into Syria’s sprawling northeastern displacement camp of al-Hol.
“Do not hesitate to pay ransom if you cannot free them by force, and attack their butchers,” Baghdadi said.
That focus on captives was consistent with the Islamic State’s long-standing attempts to cast itself as a protector of oppressed Sunni Muslims, experts said.
“Releasing prisoners has always been a focus of ISIS throughout its history, for two reasons,” said Hassan Hassan, an expert on the group at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy. “One is that these are loyal and die-hard fighters. Another is to emphasize how the group will care about its members even when they’re captured, and that it won’t abandon them.”
In Iraq, prison conditions are deteriorating after facilities were flooded by more than 17,000 men and women charged with terrorism offenses, according to judicial records.
Camps such as al-Hol in Syria have also become a cauldron of anger and frustration. Aid workers and security officials say that the camp’s most radical elements are policing the behavior of others there, punishing women who break the group’s strict social code and attacking security guards on patrol.
On Monday, the International Rescue Committee described child mortality rates there as “staggering,” saying that at least 339 children had died there since December. Many are under 5 and had known no life outside the Islamic State.
Speeches by Baghdadi have been rare for most of the Islamic State’s five-year existence. A video released in April provided the first visual proof in years that the group’s “caliph” was alive, after repeated rumors that he had been wounded or killed by U.S. airstrikes.
Although the group no longer has the revenue or power that came with a sweeping self-declared state, it now counts on dozens of smaller franchises to continue its legacy. On Monday’s recording, Baghdadi listed them: “From [Afghanistan] to Iraq to Yemen, to Somalia to western and central Africa, eastern Asia, northern Africa,” he said. “Sacrifice your lives if you have to.