By Graeme Wood
April 29, 2019
Minutes ago, the Islamic State released a video of the most wanted man in the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. No one has seen him publicly since his infamous speech at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, in July 2014. In today’s video, he is sitting cross-legged, with a white sheet behind him and, nearby, an automatic rifle and a few tasteful cushions. Sitting to one side, silently, are three masked men. Baghdadi speaks for about 12 minutes—calmly, simply, without any particular charisma—and his audience listens attentively and silently.
From the video we learn that Baghdadi is neither dead nor disabled. His condition was not a foregone conclusion: Russia announced in 2017 that it blew him to smithereens in an air strike, and news reports said that he suffered a crippling spinal injury. The latter is still possible; Baghdadi doesn’t stand up or gesticulate in a way that demonstrates a full range of motion. But this is not a Richard Simmons video, and we should not interpret too much from his physical modesty. His hands look a little anaemic, and his ear appears to be abnormally wrinkled, like a wrestler’s or a cardiac patients. But overall, he does not look like someone who has been hiding in a spider hole.
To establish his survival and current good health, of course, he didn’t have to give much of a speech. Baghdadi mentions many current events that establish the video as having been filmed this month. He notes the defeat of his forces in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul over the past couple of years and finally in Baghuz, Syria, only a month ago. He notes the revolutionary protests in Algeria and Sudan, both of which are recent news. And in a coda to the video, he praises the attackers behind the April 21 bombings in Sri Lanka, saying that the Islamic State was retaliating for Baghuz (and not, as Sri Lankan officials have suggested, for Christchurch).
But the content of Baghdadi’s speech is less informative than his affect. The total number of words we have seen delivered by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on video just doubled, and with that doubling we get not only a new explicit message but also a new profile of the man. He is not like Osama Bin Laden, who was the scion of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest and most famous families, and who therefore could not control his public image. Baghdadi, by contrast, managed his image carefully.
His sole previous appearance cast him in terms familiar from early Islamic history. He quoted the Prophet’s successor and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, likening himself to him; he wore the colours of the Abbasids. He delivered a speech filigreed with religious terminology and highfalutin religious diction and grammar. That self-presentation was almost comically over-managed. This one probably is, too.
And what is the image Baghdadi is attempting to project? That of a terrorist leader, an insurgent, a shadow-leader of a subterranean movement of global reaches. He is wearing a pocketed vest, the kind you rarely see a mullah wear but that insurgents and fly fishermen wear all the time. The rifle by his side stresses the point. And the message itself eliminates any doubt. The rhetoric no longer soars.
The language, while formal, does not take on the pious diction of his previous speech, or most of the audio releases since then. Back when Baghdadi ruled a state—complete with a well-armed military, tax collectors, and health inspectors—he and his top deputy spoke with grandiosity that inspired followers and irritated enemies. Now, as an insurgent leader again, he has dispensed with the fanciness. He governed in poetry; he terrorizes in prose.
With the fall of Baghuz, Baghdadi faced a real danger of revolt. An absent caliph is not a caliph, his enemies said. (The memory of Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, is fresh. His followers kept their allegiance to him for years after his death. The Islamic State ridiculed them for their zombie-like loyalty.) With this video, we know that the caliph still lives, rules, and demands oaths from his followers. Some of those followers followed him because they thought he would lead them in a series of never-ending victories. Whether they continue to follow him, now that he is an aging warlord holding court in front of a bedsheet, remains to be seen.
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GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.