May 15, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Baghdadi Breaks His Silence

• Amid speculation of possible incapacitation, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly delivered a lengthy speech aimed at both demonstrating proof of life and inspiring supporters in a difficult time

• The audio-only speech, released by the group’s media office al-Furqan, makes mention of the Saudi air campaign in Yemen that began March 26, and accuses Arab governments of being false protectors of the Sunni population

• Al-Baghdadi demands from all Muslims that they both immigrate to the Islamic State and conduct armed jihad in its defense; a mass mobilization with no exceptions

• The group is trying, with some success, to regain its momentum in both Iraq and Syria, putting ever more people, culture, and history at great risk, even as al-Baghdadi’s status remains unclear.

For a group that thrives on trying to change its ground reality by trumpeting its virtual reality through social media, the Islamic State had done the opposite in the last month. Amid weeks of reports that the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seriously injured and incapacitated, the group’s media arm kept silent on the issue while its ground operations took the offensive in both Iraq and Syria. It has made sizable gains near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, as well as seizing more government facilities and barracks in the eastern part of the Iraqi province of Fallujah. The group released updates and images on these developments but it remained silent as to the larger issue of al-Baghdadi’s status. Yesterday the silence was broken, though it provides no information as to the day-to-day command capabilities of al-Baghdadi.

On May 14, al-Furqan, the media office of the Islamic State, released an audiotape of what it claims to be a 34-minute speech by al-Baghdadi. The Arabic-language speech was quickly posted online, with translations available in English, Russian, French, and Turkish. In the speech, al-Baghdadi rages against nearly everyone. He begins by castigating any Muslim who won’t immigrate (hijra) to the Islamic State, and who won’t wage a violent war in its defense. For al-Baghdadi, joining him is an obligation, and that "there is no excuse for any Muslim who is capable of performing hijrah (immigration) to the Islamic State, or capable of carrying a weapon where he is." This is entirely consistent with previous calls by the group for supporters to travel if able and to attack the enemy however and wherever they are.

He then focuses on the Arab governments that he insists are lying in their claims to represent and protect the beleaguered Sunni population. He makes specific mention of the anti-Islamic State Arab forces being trained both by regional governments such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey but also the hated West. This will likely become a main thread of the group’s counter-narrative messaging, as more training takes place in Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere; it might prove to be an effective tactic, given the latent negative sentiment of Western involvement in the crises in Syria and Iraq.

In his litany of complaints against perceived Sunni oppression and abdicated Arab leadership, al-Baghdadi effectively covers the globe in his attempt to be seen as the worldwide supreme leader of the Sunni. He wonders where is the protection for Muslims in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Burma, India, China, "Indonesia, the Caucasus, Africa, Khorasan, and everywhere else". He then focuses on the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. He dismisses the fact the main targets of the Saudi air strikes are the Shi'a Houthis, and describes the effort as “not a storm of resolve, rather it is the kick of a dying person.” If the voice proves to be al-Baghdadi's, then he was capable of giving such as speech in late March, when the airstrikes began, thus providing a sign of life when it was probably needed most.

Even more so than his previous broadcasts, al-Baghdadi spews a consistent and virulent anti-semtisim while embracing an 'end of times' theology, saying that his fighters who have withstood the recent pressure, and those that refuse to give in to apostate pressure to abandon the extremist path, as those "who are holding onto hot coals, who are firmer than stone."

In the speech’s most bizarre segment, al-Baghdadi talks about the sadness he and his group feel at the Iraqi Sunni “seeking refuge in the areas controlled by the R?fidah (Shi'a) and Kurdish atheists in Iraq, ignoring that it is the savagery of the group that has caused so many people to flee before its advance. It is noteworthy that he even admits to the reality of thousands of Sunni literally fleeing his group, even though he can't recognize the reasons for this flight. He actually blames this forced displacement on government mouthpieces “who confuse those poor people and portray the Islamic State to them as being the cause of evil and the source of hardships.” He says it breaks his heart that they left their homes and urges them to return and "seek shelter with the Islamic State.” The distortion of the reality in places from Tikrit to Mosul, Fallujah to Diyala is striking even for this group.

The timing of the released speech could be an indication that the sustained whisper campaign about the functionality and vitality of al-Baghdadi was beginning to take root. The reported death of al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Abu al-Afri during a recent airstrike in Tal Afar, Iraq, if true, would be another personnel loss in a long string of them. The group has managed to withstand serious pressure from all sides, even if it isn’t expanding so much as it is moving to places of least resistance and more strategic import. In less than a month it will be a year since the group took Mosul and then announced itself as the returned caliphate. For at least 30 minutes, al-Baghdadi insisted that this caliphate remains and will indeed expand globally, a message that will sadly resonate with listeners near and far.


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