Early Thursday morning a new audiotape, released by IS media organisation Furqan, broke the silence of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Speaking publicly for the first time since December 2015 Baghdadi’s message, titled This is What God and His Messenger Have Promised Us, served as a rallying call to fighters, urged attacks on Turkey and Saudi Arabia and alluded to future IS staging ground.
In a 30-minute address preaching directly to IS members and sympathisers, Baghdadi seeks to provide reassurance in the face of recent pressure. He portrays the force assembled against the organisation as a result of the group’s success.
Referring to the wide array of forces and multitude of nations in the anti-IS coalition, Baghdadi explains that this is testament to the strength of the group and demonstrates that it is on the right path. He continues that the coalition only came together after they saw that Muslims lived under the caliphate in safety and dignity.
Baghdadi utilises the adversity and defeats faced by the group as a sign of righteousness, claiming that the intense war will only make IS stronger and is a sign of the final decisive victory, appealing to the apocalyptical rhetoric the group has made a feature of output.
The most startling section of the tape comes in a direct address to followers instructing them to obey their emirs as an act of worship. This statement gives credence to reports that suggested increased insubordination desertion among IS’s ranks.
Assuming the tone of a field commander, Baghdadi gives the unprecedented order for soldiers not to withdraw from the battlefields of Nineveh and Sirte.
“Know that the value of staying on your land with honour is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame,” he said, adding: “This war is yours. Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”
The order is a clear call for a fight to the bitter end in Mosul, dispelling any lingering hope among coalition forces that fighters in Mosul may withdraw to IS’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
Baghdadi widens his audience as he glorifies IS members in the ‘distant wilayat’ (territories outside Iraq and Syria) describing them as the ‘pillars of the caliphate’. He urges them to remain united in the face of division and calls for followers unable to reach Syria or Iraq to head instead to Libya.
This provides a window into future planning of IS, and demonstrates how the group will seek to exploit the strategic depth of its presence in multiple unstable territories.
If the group is pushed from Iraq, and potentially Syria, the theatre of Libya appears to offer the most amenable haven for fighters to retreat to. If the group is able to flood Libya with a high volume of fighters it may be able to capture and hold swathes of territory, which can serve as the core zones of the caliphate, whilst simultaneously waging insurgencies in Iraq and Syria.
In his communication Baghdadi reserves special ire for four Sunni groups.
Addressing Iraq’s Sunni population Baghdadi implores to Sunni victimhood, proclaiming that Sunni politicians have betrayed and cannot protect them. He uses the example of Aleppo to stress the damage that can be wrought upon Sunni’s. Expanding on this, Baghdadi asks whether Sunni’s have learnt from past mistakes; “Look at their banners, listen to their slogans and talks”. Baghdadi implies that the involvement of Shia and Kurdish forces will lead to the oppression of Sunni’s after the expulsion of IS. Using the sectarian framework that is central to IS ideology, he taps into anxieties over reprisals and disenfranchisement. Baghdadi continues to frame his organisation as the sole defender of Sunni’s. It also exposes his displeasure at Sunni’s who have failed to side with ISIS, and are in fact now fighting the group.
He accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of fronting ‘the crusaders’ fight against the Islamic State, including in Libya. Utilising language employed by regimes across the Middle East, Baghdadi refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘the brothers of the devil’. A notable point is that Baghdadi doesn’t refer to the Muslim Brotherhood using the usual apostate label, but on this occasion refers to them as ‘heretics’, dismissing their Sunni-hood.
In what has become a tradition of his addresses, Baghdadi targets Saudi Arabia, calling for sympathisers in the country to attack security forces, writers and everyone who supports the government. He goes on to accuse Saudi Arabia of being responsible for ‘every filthy project conducted against Muslims’.
Special mention is also given to Turkey, described as ‘apostate’ and ‘double-faced’, a reference to the sense of Turkey as both Islamist and secular. Baghdadi calls on followers inside northern Syria and Iraq to launch attacks against Turkey, and calls on followers to wage war inside the country.
Both nations have previously drawn fury from Baghdadi, however this statement represents an escalation. This could serve as an indication that, decreasing in territorial control, IS plans to devote new focus to attacks inside both countries to punish and divide.
The voice of the tape appears to be that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when compared to the speech given at the Mosul mosque in 2014 and there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of the recording.
The tape serves as confirmation that Baghdadi is still alive, despite numerous rumours to the contrary and a widely held belief that he has been significant injured.
The message appears to have been recorded recently. Baghdadi eulogises slain senior IS operative Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, killed on the 30th of August, and Abu Muhammed al-Furqan, killed on the 11th of October. While this still provides a period of several weeks, Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan has noted that the statement cannot have been recorded longer than 12 days ago, as Baghdadi directly addresses statements made by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on October 23rd.
Some observes have been puzzled by the failure to mention Mosul directly by name. Baghdadi referred to the coalitions and fight in the region using the term of Nineveh, the province in which Mosul lies. This is in line with the usual reference to areas by the name designated via the wilayat system.
However analyst Charlie Winter has questioned this as the propaganda output of IS has sought to brand fighting as ‘the Battle of Mosul’ not ‘the Battle of Nineveh’.
The significance of the message is to ensure that remaining territories held by IS become focal points. Recently the group has withdrawn from territory avoiding direct and large-scale conflict, however it is clear that Baghdadi wishes for a vigorous defence of Mosul. The city is the proclaimed capital of his caliphate and he has had association with it for many years as he ascended through the ranks. Rather than expressing any doubt surrounding the group’s strategy of seizing territory and declaring the caliphate, in the face of battlefield defeats Baghdadi has no regrets. Indeed, it appears that he is quite happy to return to the desert, explore possibilities across the world and seek to break out into territorial control all over again.
While Baghdadi has appealed for fighters to stay in Mosul, he appears to have exited the city himself. For several months it was believed that the elusive Baghdadi was housed in Mosul. However British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared that intelligence sources no longer believe this to be true. A report in The Times by Gareth Browne cites General Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari, commanding officer of the Iraqi Special Operation Forces, who states “we known that al-Baghdadi was in Tal Afar last week…however now…we are certain that he has moved to Baa’j on the border with Syria”. Most analysts assume that the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim will withdraw towards Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
While the Mosul operations have provided fresh optimism about the campaign against IS, this statement makes clear that for Baghdadi and his followers the fight is far from over.