The appearance of the Islamic State’s leader in a video this week after a five-year absence appeared to be an effort to signal that the group is preparing for a long global war despite its territorial defeat, terrorism experts say.
The video of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “is a critical element of ISIS’s change from a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria to a global insurgency group,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.
In the video, Baghdadi appears to be in good health and shows no signs of injuries despite reports that he had been wounded in battle. He is seen lecturing three men who seem to be ISIS commanders about the loss of fighters, battles, current political events and terrorist attacks.
Baghdadi mentions the names of several ISIS commanders and other members killed in battle, including French brothers Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, also known as Abu Anas al-Faransi and Abu Uthman.
According to European intelligence officials, Fabian Clain was suspected of being involved in the planning of the Paris attacks in November 2015, which left 130 people dead, and had recorded a message claiming responsibility for the violence on behalf of the Islamic State. He was killed in an airstrike conducted by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria earlier this year. His brother, who was believed to have been severely injured in the strike, was announced dead later by ISIS.
A member of ISIS who was contacted via an encrypted communication platform said that by mentioning the names of killed commanders, Baghdadi was showing his appreciation and trying to motivate followers.
“The emir [Baghdadi] is sending us all a message that each of us is doing something important for the ummah [the Muslim community], no matter if you are in the ranks or military,” said the man, known as Abu Yassim, who spoke on the condition that he not be further identified.
Baghdadi’s decision to list the nations of the killed commanders was a way to demonstrate the group’s reach around the world.
“He is demonstrating that this is a global organization and movement,” said Haroro Ingram, senior research fellow on extremism at George Washington University. “Al-Qaeda often struggled with being a diffuse network and what that means for authority and control from the top.”
Intelligence officials and experts say the message was also an attempt by Baghdadi to mend the rifts within his own organization.
“With this statement Baghdadi is signaling to critics in IS ranks that he is very much in control and knows what is happening inside the organization,” Ingram said.
Intelligence officials in the Middle East and Europe believe Baghdadi’s video might serve as an invitation to other radical Islamist groups to join the brand. For example, he congratulated groups in Burkina Faso for pledging allegiance to ISIS and described how the different branches would take “revenge for their brothers in Iraq and Syria.”
“One has to look at the video from the context of what ISIS told Muslims after the declaration of caliphate. The message back then was come to the caliphate,” said an intelligence official from a Middle Eastern country, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss security matters publicly. “The message now is, look for a local branch, like in Sri Lanka and you can still be a full part of ISIS and serve the ummah.”
Toward the end of the video, one of the commanders presents folders to Baghdadi with the names of “provinces” on them — including Libya, West Africa, the Caucasus and Turkey apparently to show how much the caliphate has expanded.
The European intelligence official believes that including Turkey, which has not been declared, could be seen as a statement about existing ISIS fighters and structures there and its strategic importance to the organization.
Intelligence officials are analyzing the video for possible clues about Baghdadi’s whereabouts or hidden messages to possible cells and members. In chat rooms, ISIS supporters said the U.S.-led fight against ISIS has failed, despite all the years of war and spending money, according to the Middle Eastern intelligence official. Some users mocked President Trump for announcing the end of the caliphate.
“We have also picked up criticism and attacks against Arab rulers and heads of states who participated in the fight against ISIS,” the Arab intelligence official said.
The experts and officials noted that the video was released days before the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and said the timing could encourage ISIS cells and followers to commit attacks in the next weeks.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.