- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2019

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 re-emerged Monday, 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 State-held 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 circulated Monday 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 this week 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 last month.

The last known audio recording of al-Baghdadi circulated in August. The video released Monday 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.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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