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 colors 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 reach. 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.