Baghdadi's back, kinda: ISIS "caliph" finally emerges after collapse of "caliphate"

Apparently, the caliph doesn’t go down with his shipwreck. A new video from ISIS purportedly shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time in five years, looking grayer and heavier but still alive after the collapse of the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. Baghdadi offered praise for the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, but apparently didn’t have much to say about his supposedly divine office after getting stripped of the last ground his terror network controlled:

The terror group’s media arm released a speech by the elusive leader on Monday, in which he addresses the end of the physical Isis caliphate. It is the first time he has been pictured since July 2014, when he announced the creation of the Isis caliphate from the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul.

Following the capture of the last of the group’s territory month, Western intelligence agencies have speculated that Baghdadi has gone into hiding somewhere in the desert regions of Iraq or Syria. Despite releasing several audio recordings over the past few years, his fate has been the subject of intense speculation. …

In the video, Baghdadi sits alongside three other Isis members whose faces are blurred. He praises the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka, which targeted churches and hotels and left more than 250 people dead, calling it revenge for Baghouz — the small Syrian village where Isis made its last stand.

That puts the date of the taping sometime within the last week, most likely. It’s possible it was taped before the attacks if ISIS had foreknowledge of them, but either way it would have been very recent. The Jerusalem Post notes the apparent good health of the erstwhile caliph, a contrast to those who stuck around in Baghouz, Raqqa, and Mosul:

The 47-year-old evasive leader was looking older, greyer, but relatively healthy in the video and he spoke for about 18 minutes discussing recent events that has befallen the Islamic State. The leaders’ assault weapon was also purposely visible in the video.

Sitting around him are other members of ISIS who all have their faces covered.

During the video he mentions the Islamic caliphate after the battle for Baghouz – the final ISIS strong hold to have fallen in Syria. He begins the speech making it clear that he is aware that the battle for Baghouz has ended. He also went on to speak the end of physical caliphate of the Islamic State.

In his speech, he praises the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka, which targeted churches and hotels and left more than 250 people dead.

Wherever Baghdadi spent his time during those battles, he clearly managed to feed himself well. He’s looking pretty relaxed in the 42-second video available on YouTube for those who want to look for it. Baghdadi has his automatic rifle close at hand, but doesn’t appear to have used it recently for anything other than a prop. Those aren’t the hands of a grunt on the front lines.

Why release this now, after five years of keeping Baghdadi under wraps? After all, for a few years at least, Baghdadi was the realization of radical-Islamist dreams. After the one video of him proclaiming the ‘caliphate,’ however, ISIS never depicted him in another video — not at the height of his power, nor when Baghdadi needed to rally his troops as the ‘caliphate’ collapsed, although occasional audio tapes were released. The need for security was so high that ISIS never used the more influential medium, not even to prove Baghdadi survived the collapse, until now.

Now, however, ISIS needs self-promotion more than operational security, which is one reason not to take their claim of masterminding the Sri Lanka attacks at face value. Losing Raqqa and Baghouz took a lot of the wind out of Baghdadi’s argument that he had a divine appointment as caliph, and with it his claims for the authority to demand service from all Muslims. His survival could show that the claim isn’t entirely dead, although even most radicals must wonder what the defeat of ISIS means for Baghdadi’s assertions of supremacy.

On one point, however, it works to ISIS’ advantage. Baghdadi was a sharp enough terrorist organizer to form a marauding army in the vacuum left by the US pullout from Iraq in 2011. His survival, assuming this tape is on the level, represents a significant threat of a repeat, although perhaps tempered by the actual experience of living through a caliphate by those who now seek to escape the region and return to their homes. Baghdadi may not be able to seize territory any longer, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a very big threat, at least potentially. At the very least, his acumen for recruitment and strategizing remains dangerous enough to Western interests.

Perhaps those Western interests can pick up a few clues to his whereabouts from this video, although there’s not many clues in the environment apparent to untrained eyes. The US still has a $25 million bounty on Baghdadi’s head, which the Trump administration would loooove to pay out.