November 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Baghdadi Speaks as the Caliphate Falters

• On November 2, the Islamic State released what it said was an audio message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—his first in eleven months.

• Al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to obey their leaders and to defend Nineveh, the Iraqi province where Mosul is located.

• With Iraqi forces moving into Mosul, al-Baghdadi had little choice but to make a rhetoric-laden call to rally his troops.

• Al-Baghdadi’s call for attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere will only increase the already elevated risk of external attacks as the Islamic State is squeezed in Iraq and Syria.

It has been almost eleven months since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State, last released a public message. In that time, his group has suffered cascading defeats in Iraq and Syria. With the Islamic State on the verge of its most high-profile defeat to date in Mosul, al-Baghdadi had little choice but to make a statement to his followers. On November 2, the Islamic State released an audio message purportedly by al-Baghdadi, which was intended to both verify he was still alive, and to call for unity in the aftermath of what will be a costly loss for the group. Al-Baghdadi was the first person to so prominently declare himself as caliph; he is likely soon to be the first person to preside over the loss of the self-proclaimed caliphate. As such, his speech reflected the contradictions inherent to the pragmatic, yet nihilistic Islamic State.

As with previous messages, al-Baghdadi’s speech sought to minimize the group’s misfortunes, framing the current situation as a ‘prelude to victory’. In his usual sermon-esque style, al-Baghdadi attempted to instill confidence in the defense of Mosul. The 31-minute audio message did not mention Mosul by name, but rather referred to the defense of Nineveh, the province that includes Mosul. Unlike other losses the Islamic State has sustained in Iraq, there is no fallback position for the group’s fighters if they pulled back en masse from Mosul. Al-Baghdadi merely stated the obvious when he told his followers that ‘Holding your ground with honour is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame’. Whether al-Baghdadi has heeded his own exhortation to defend Mosul is unclear; on November 3, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson stated British intelligence had indications that al-Baghdadi had fled the area.

In the message, al-Baghdadi made specific calls for attacks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi Arabia has long been a highly symbolic target for the Islamic State; Turkey represents both a major player and a complicating factor in how the campaigns for Mosul and Raqqa will play out. The message also called for the group’s many would-be suicide bombers to strike wherever possible. Indeed, al-Baghdadi’s focus on regional sectarian tensions and calls for external terror attacks allows the Islamic State to maintain a solid footing, even as the group loses its grip on Iraq’s second largest city. The terror threat facing the West is already high; al-Baghdadi’s most recent broadcast will only increase the concern.

Both in rhetoric and reality, al-Baghdadi is betting that the deep and divisive sectarian and political issues facing the Middle East—and Iraq in particular—will be the group’s best defense against total defeat. In his latest message, al-Baghdadi railed against the Shi’a military forces arrayed against his group, pointing to the various Shi’a militia flags as proof that the Islamic State alone is the defender of the Sunni population. With Turkey warning Shi’a units to stay out of Tal Afar—an Islamic State stronghold west of Mosul that is made up primarily of ethnic Turkman—an Iraqi government still divided and unable to govern effectively, the constant fear of sectarian reprisal and atrocities, and other regional machinations, al-Baghdadi hopes his many opponents will yet again turn a hard-fought, near-term victory into a slow-motion, long-term defeat.


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