BEIRUT — Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi surfaced Tuesday in a video for the first time in five years, indicating that he has survived the territorial defeat of the caliphate he proclaimed and retains overall control of the group.
Seated cross-legged on a flowered mattress in a bare white room, Baghdadi hailed the Islamic State’s expansion around the globe, urged his supporters to keep up the fight and congratulated the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.
Baghdadi’s beard, apparently tinted with henna at some point in the recent past, has grayed since his only other video appearance — at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2014 — when he first announced the Islamic State’s intention to re-create the caliphate. But otherwise he looked to be in good health and showed no obvious sign of injury, despite numerous reports in recent years that he had been wounded in airstrikes or in battle.
Propped up beside him is a Kalashnikov rifle of the same model — an AK-74 — that was featured in videos made by al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State’s first leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi. Baghdadi is dressed in a black tunic and a military-style vest, and the entire scene appeared designed to emphasize his lineage in the Islamist militant movement.
The timing of the video, released by the Islamic State’s Furqan channel, seemed to confirm the widespread belief that he survived the Islamic State’s final stand in the battle of Baghouz in eastern Syria last month. Iraqi and U.S. officials say he is thought to be hiding out in the desert in either Syria or Iraq, but the video gave no indication of his location.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, said the video illustrates the “serious danger” that Baghdadi still poses as the Islamic State’s leader.
His appearance demonstrates not only that Baghdadi is still alive, “but also that he is able to reemerge to his supporters and reaffirm the group’s us-vs-the-world message after all the progress made against the group,” Katz said in a posting on her Twitter account.
The message of congratulations to the Easter attackers in Sri Lanka is delivered in a separate, audio segment at the end of the video, suggesting that it was added after the video was made. Baghdadi described the attacks on churches and hotels, in which at least 250 people died, as revenge for the deaths of Islamic State fighters in the battle of Baghouz, and not for the white extremist attack on two mosques in New Zealand in March, as the Sri Lankan government has claimed. “This is part of the vengeance that awaits the Crusaders and their henchmen” he said, according to a translation provided by the SITE monitoring service.
Tellingly, he also thanks the attackers for their pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, without claiming a direct role for the group in orchestrating the bombings.
References in the video to other recent events, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 9 election victory in Israel, the April 11 coup in Sudan and the resignation of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, indicate, however, that the main video recording was made this month, between April 11 and 22.
Much of his message is given over to hailing prominent Islamic State figures who died fighting in Baghouz, 13 of whom he names, including Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, French brothers who are suspected of playing a role in Islamic State attacks in Paris.
But the main purpose of the video seemed to be to signal to followers that the Islamic State not only survives but is expanding worldwide, despite the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq. Baghdadi thanks the various groups around the world that have pledged allegiance in recent months, including those in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Western Sahara, Pakistan and Khorasan, a reference to eastern Iran.
And as he speaks, one of his aides pointedly hands him folders bearing the names of the various Islamic State “provinces,” including West Africa, Somalia, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya, Central Africa, the Caucasus and Turkey — suggesting that even as the group accepts new global franchises, Baghdadi retains overall control.
Baghdadi’s whereabouts remain a mystery, however. Recent reports in the Iraqi and Syrian press have claimed that he is hiding out in the Badia desert region of eastern Homs province in Syria.
Iraqi security officials say he is either there or in Iraq’s Anbar province. Citing intelligence reports, analysts close to the security forces say they believe the fugitive leader operates with tight security, meeting in person with only a small group of trusted aides, and never in the presence of a cellphone. “Baghdadi is surrounded by a close-knit group of four men who communicate with others, but when they are with him, there is no communication device in the room,” said Saeed al-Jayashi, an Iraqi security expert with ties to the government.
Three men are clearly shown in the video, as are a pair of hands accepting the files named after the provinces — though it is unclear whether they belong to a fourth man or one of the three already filmed.
Mekhennet reported from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad contributed to this report.