Is­lamic State leader vows more at­tacks

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY GUY TAY­LOR AND CARLO MUÑOZ

He may have lost his hold on ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq and barely eluded the U.S.backed forces who de­stroyed his “caliphate,” but unbroken Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi reemerged, ap­pear­ing for the first time in five years in a crude ji­hadi video to de­clare that his global ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion is far from dead.

The video ap­peared to show the reclu­sive ji­hadi leader talk­ing about the re­cent Is­lamic State-linked suicide bomb­ings that killed more than 250 peo­ple in Sri Lanka and vow­ing broadly to seek re­venge for the deaths and im­pris­on­ments of the ter­ror­ist group’s fight­ers in re­cent years.

In­tel­li­gence sources scru­ti­niz­ing the video’s au­then­tic­ity said they be­lieve the tired-look­ing gray- and red-bearded ter­ror­ist leader, wear­ing a black tu­nic and sit­ting against a wall next to an AK-47 ri­fle in an un­known hid­ing place, was likely al-Bagh­dadi and that the ref­er­ence to the Easter at­tacks in Sri Lanka points to a re­cent film­ing.

An­a­lysts said al-Bagh­dadi had a some­what de­feated pos­ture in the video but likely or­dered its cir­cu­la­tion to show that even with the Is­lamic State on the ropes in its Mid­dle East home base, the group con­tin­ues to hold sway on the global ji­hadi landscape.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing that af­ter five years he’s fi­nally de­cided to show his face. I think it’s a recog­ni­tion that things aren’t go­ing well for Is­lamic State,” said Bill Rog­gio, a coun­tert­er­ror­ism an­a­lyst with the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies think tank. “But he’s try­ing to put out the mes­sage that the group is still rel­e­vant and is still in the fight.”

“It’s an at­tempt to rally the troops be­cause the re­cent Sri Lanka at­tack was re­ally big for the Is­lamic State and I think al-Bagh­dadi def­i­nitely wanted to … high­light the suc­cess of the op­er­a­tion,” said Mr. Rog­gio, an edi­tor of the foun­da­tion’s Long War Jour­nal.

It’s a mes­sage that Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives, who have been cred­ited with car­ry­ing out ter­ror­ist at­tacks in France, Belgium, the Philip­pines and In­done­sia over the past five years, ap­par­ently hope will res­onate de­spite the clear bat­tle­field re­verses of re­cent months.

The cap­ture by U.S.-backed Kur­dish and Arab mili­tias of a last Is­lamic State­held vil­lage on the Syria-Iraq bor­der led Mr. Trump and his aides to de­clare that the ter­ror­ist group had been fully de­feated in the the­ater.

But ter­ror­ism an­a­lysts warned that the Is­lamic State re­tained a loyal cadre of fight­ers and could re­turn to clas­sic guer­rilla tac­tics, a pre­dic­tion ap­par­ently borne out with the hor­rific at­tacks that ripped through sev­eral Christian churches and lux­ury tourist ho­tels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sun­day.

Still dan­ger­ous

The video was re­leased by al-Furqan, which is widely rec­og­nized as the pro­pa­ganda arm of the Is­lamic State. It showed al-Bagh­dadi giv­ing an 18-minute ad­dress.

The SITE In­tel­li­gence group, a pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tion that an­a­lyzes such ter­ror­ist videos, said al-Bagh­dadi spoke of the at­tacks in Sri Lanka and dis­cussed the end of the bat­tle of Baghouz, the Is­lamic State’s last strong­hold in Syria. He re­ferred to the bat­tle, which ended last month, in the past tense, SITE an­a­lysts re­ported.

At one point in the record­ing, some­one passes al-Bagh­dadi lam­i­nated files ap­par­ently con­tain­ing the names of re­gions around the world, in­clud­ing North Africa and Ye­men, where the Is­lamic State has drawn pledges of loy­alty from lo­cal ex­trem­ists or claimed credit for at­tacks.

Al-Bagh­dadi then claims that the Is­lamic State has car­ried out 92 op­er­a­tions in eight coun­tries to avenge the ter­ror­ist group’s losses in Syria and Iraq, al­though he did not give de­tails.

The gov­ern­ments of Syria and Iraq and the U.S.-led coali­tion in­side Syria have seized back over the past three years the vast swath of ter­ri­tory that Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives once ruled. Al-Bagh­dadi is be­lieved to have slipped into hid­ing long be­fore his group’s ouster.

Iraqi National Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cials have said al-Bagh­dadi is hid­ing in Syria and has made sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to es­cape to Iraq. Re­ports by the Arab news out­let Al-Araby Al-Jadeed have said the ter­ror­ist group is at­tempt­ing to re­con­sti­tute its forces in Iraq for an in­sur­gent-style cam­paign there.

Oth­ers have claimed al-Bagh­dadi is likely hid­ing in Syria’s Ba­dia desert. Hisham al-Hashemi, an an­a­lyst spe­cial­iz­ing in Is­lamic State de­vel­op­ments, told France 24 that the ter­ror­ist group leader may be hid­ing with his el­der brother Ju­maa, his driver and body­guard Ab­dul­latif al-Jubury and his courier Saud al-Kurdi. The Ba­dia desert is re­ported to be where al-Bagh­dadi’s son, Hud­hayfa al-Badri, was killed by a Rus­sian mis­sile strike.

But of­fi­cials with a U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion fo­cused on de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State have re­peat­edly re­jected claims that al-Bagh­dadi is hid­ing in Syria. “We do not think he is in Syria,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the coali­tion-aligned Syr­ian De­fense Forces, told Agence France-Presse in March.

The last known au­dio record­ing of alBagh­dadi cir­cu­lated in Au­gust. The video was the first since 2014 that has pur­ported to show him speak­ing and de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage on camera to fol­low­ers.

Ri­val to al Qaeda

U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have told The Wash­ing­ton Times that they be­came aware of al-Bagh­dadi’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Iraq, as well as his po­ten­tial global am­bi­tions, dur­ing the years af­ter the 2011 death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Spe­cial Forces in Pak­istan. The Is­lamic State and al Qaeda have reg­u­larly feuded over tac­tics, strat­egy and re­cruits.

Where bin Laden’s im­age be­came glob­ally fa­mil­iar be­fore his death, al-Bagh­dadi’s ten­ure as a global ter­ror­ist leader has been more shad­owy.

Few con­firmed pho­to­graphs of al-Bagh­dadi ex­ist. One, a grainy pass­port-style head­shot of a youngish Arab man with closely cropped hair, an in­tense stare and an Al Capone-like smirk on his lips, sits atop al-Bagh­dadi’s de­clas­si­fied case file at the State Depart­ment’s Re­wards for Jus­tice Program.

The file out­lines how his rise was tied to the af­ter­math of bin Laden’s death. Di­rect­ing a wave of suicide bomber at­tacks in Iraq un­der the ban­ner of a group first known as al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Bagh­dadi is said to have pledged to “carry out 100 at­tacks across Iraq in re­tal­i­a­tion for bin Laden’s death.”

Al-Bagh­dadi, who is be­lieved to be in his mid-40s, built a rep­u­ta­tion for try­ing to buck al Qaeda’s orig­i­nal lead­er­ship core and for em­brac­ing cer­tain lo­cal­ized ji­hadi fac­tions that al Qaeda had kept at arm’s length.

In ad­di­tion to the bru­tal­ity of its tac­tics, Is­lamic State un­der al-Bagh­dadi also be­came known for its so­phis­ti­cated dig­i­tal pro­pa­ganda arm, one that spread rapidly among young peo­ple in the so­cial me­dia era and gained re­cruits around the world.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A man pre­sumed to be Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi ac­knowl­edged in a video re­leased last week that the Is­lamic State lost the war in Baghouz, a Syr­ian vil­lage cap­tured by the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces.

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