Islamic State’s long-pursued leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, made his first video appearance in almost five years on Monday, vowing to continue the battle against the U.S. and its allies in a propaganda video released to social media.
In the 18-minute recording, Baghdadi, appearing healthy if grayer, repeatedly extols the “steadfastness” of militants and says that even though Islamic State has lost territory, “jihad is ongoing until the day of judgment.” He later praises the attackers in Sri Lanka who killed more than 250 on Easter Sunday and rejoices that Americans and Europeans were among the dead.
Titled “In the Hospitality of the Emir of the Believers,” the video depicts a slow-speaking Baghdadi addressing a group of what are presumably his lieutenants, with a Kalashnikov rifle and an ammunition belt laid casually at his side.
He begins by congratulating what he described as Islamic State’s holy warriors for holding out in Baghouz, the tiny eastern Syrian hamlet that was the last remnant of Islamic State’s once-sprawling caliphate before being overrun by a U.S.-backed offensive last month.
The fighters there, Baghdadi said, proved Islamic State’s militants would surrender the lands they control only “over their corpses and body parts.”
With the loss of Baghouz, Baghdadi continued, “the battle today is one of attrition and stretching out the enemy.” He called on fighters to “attack their enemies and bleed them,” whether in manpower, military, economic or logistical capabilities.
The speech marks Baghdadi’s first video appearance since 2014, when he first walked up the steps of the Great Nouri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, and declared himself caliph.
In the months that followed that speech, the group’s fighters would blitz through large swaths of Iraq and Syria and eventually control a full third of each country.
Baghdadi, meanwhile, became arguably the world’s most wanted man: The U.S. offered a $25-million bounty for information leading to his capture. The various armies pursuing him have made periodic statements that he was killed in an airstrike, wounded or battling health issues.
Yet in the new video he appears to be in good health as he confers with the men around him, and is shown reading what are presumably reports from the various areas where the group maintains a presence.
Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit Soufan Center, said the video was Baghdadi’s attempt to counter the narrative of a “downtrodden” Islamic State.
“It’s definitely intended to provide a morale boost to Islamic State supporters,” Clarke said. “I think he’s hoping that this catalyzes individuals that are planning an attack, or thinking about it.”
Baghdadi’s clothing is also a change from the robes that he has been seen in previously, Clarke said, and a sign to followers that he is prepared to lead an insurgency.
Baghdadi addresses recent uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, exhorting people there to return to jihad, saying “nothing works with [dictators] other than the sword.”
Later, in an audio-only addendum to the speech, Baghdadi mentioned the Sri Lanka attacks, insisting they were the work of a new Islamic State affiliate in the country.
The attackers were taking out “vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” Baghdadi said. It was “a part of the vengeance that awaits the crusaders and their lackeys,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led coalition and its allies.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that government analysts would review the video and that the agency would defer to the intelligence community on its authenticity.
"ISIS’ territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria was a crushing strategic and psychological blow as ISIS saw its so-called caliphate crumble, its leaders killed or flee the battlefield, and its savagery exposed,” the spokesperson said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “But this fight is not finished.”
The spokesperson said a U.S.-led coalition will continue working “to ensure an enduring defeat of these terrorists and that any leaders who remain are delivered the justice that they deserve."
Also in the video, Baghdadi mentions pledges of allegiance from “brothers in Burkina Faso and Mali,” congratulating militants from the West African nations on joining “the convoy of the caliphate.”
He calls on militants in the two former French colonies to intensify attacks on the “crusader France,” which has troops stationed in the region. And he specifically mentions the Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi, who leads the offshoot Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Extremist violence has risen in recent years in both nations. On Sunday in Burkina Faso, armed groups reportedly killed six people in a Protestant church near the Mali border; no group has claimed responsibility.