In the Hospitality of the Commander

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An Analysis of a Message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The first picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in years.

It is the sixth day of Ramadan, 2014. It’s a clear day in Mosul, clouds dotting the sky. The palm trees around the Great Mosque of an-Nuri wave lightly in the breeze. At mid-day, cutting through the air with temperatures breaking 40 degrees boils the sidewalk below, the adhan is called from the ancient minaret. The regular imam is not here. Instead, it is the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State, a force that swept through and captured the city of millions only a month before.

On the minbar, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi beseeched Muslims to take advantage of the benefits of the month of Ramadan while they are still alive. He praised the institutions of the Sharia that had been recently established by the fighters of the Islamic State, and called upon denizens to pledge their allegiance. He railed against the enemies of the group and called on his newfound citizens to take up arms against them. Moreover, he admitted the great burden that had been placed upon him, and claimed the occupation of being the Caliph was not one he desired.

Cut to five years later.

The Great Mosque of an-Nuri now stands in ruin. The Coalition pointed to video to show that ISIS destroyed it as Iraqi forces advanced, while ISIS claimed it had been destroyed by a Coalition airstrike. The one who was proclaimed as Caliph has been chased out of the most public square of a city he once ruled to a tent somewhere out in the desert.

Reflections on Losses

The video, released through ISIS’ official media channels, is entitled “In the Hospitality of the Commander of the Faithful: Caliph Ibrahim ibn Awad al-Badri al-Husayni al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi.” From the beginning, this release is made to have a certain flair to it, to make the viewer feel like they are in the presence of a rare sight, almost as if one should bow their heads in respect. The introduction is barebones, text titles alone, no nashid or narration. We fade up, and we see the face of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aged, beard dyed with henna, and heavier than when we saw him last.

This is not the first time since Mosul that we have seen al-Baghdadi’s face, as many have said. In pictures released, he was said to be at a Qur’an recitation competition in Fallujah. But it has still been years since those pictures, and while his voice has been heard in those prevailing years, it has never been with video attached.

Three men surround al-Baghdadi. Officials maybe, their faces are blurred beneath their shemaghs. Rumors swirled of their identities online; Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, their spokesman, maybe being the one in red, but never anything to substantiate those claims. In stark contrast to the grandiose setting of his last appearance, al-Baghdadi is sitting on the floor, two cushions beside him, with only the fabric walls of a tent.

To speak in such a setting is not something that is alien to ISIS and its members. Its predecessors built their brand as hardened fighters by showcasing their hardships in the desert, fighting against American troops even as their safe houses and what counted for territory was peeled back during the Surge. Forced to take risks with open-air encampments, trudging through mountains to stay mobile, eating lizards to survive, this kind of living is not a concept that the Islamic State wouldn’t be able to comprehend. But after years of having control of major cities, putting other religious groups under their submission, establishing taxation and police forces, a return to the ways of old does not come without notice.

From the beginning of al-Baghdadi’s speech, one can immediately tell this is not going to be a fiery sermon. His words are measured, quiet, almost never raising his voice. There are no assurances of victory but immediate acknowledgements of loss. “The Battle of Baghuz is over,” al-Baghdadi says, “in it we saw the barbarity and the monstrousness of the nation of the Cross against the nation of Islam.” al-Baghdadi mourns the commanders and operatives who died in the fighting, sometimes noting what nations they came from with emphasis.

Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Angari at-Tamimi, from Saudi Arabia. Abu Hajar Abd as-Samad al-Iraqi at-Talibi, from Iraq. Abu al-Walid as-Sinawi, from Egypt. Abd al-Ghani al-Iraqi, from Iraq. Abu Mus’ab al-Hijazi, from Saudi Arabia. All were commanders in the battle for Baghuz, one after the other, and all met their end within a month’s span of time.

al-Baghdadi also name-checks many media operatives who died and who made ISIS media the powerhouse that it was, Australians, Saudis, Chechens, and Frenchmen alike. The deaths of these media commanders is the most likely explanation for the rapid deterioration of ISIS-released media since the fall of Hajin. While the obvious loss of media headquarters in Mosul and the loss of territory contributed greatly, many of these men were at head of distributing ISIS media to the rest of the world, in many different languages. While al-Baghdadi’s speech in Mosul was released in a litany of different languages, not even subtitles have been given for the speech released here. Supporters of the group have taken it upon themselves to do it for the organization, with only a Turkish translation having been released in full at the time of this writing.

Broken but Not Deterred

Despite the deaths of these commanders, al-Baghdadi notes, ISIS has still been able to conduct operation after operation against their opponents. The “Vengeance for Sham” campaign, a campaign that many analysts have noted did not appear severely out of the ordinary from the regular day-to-day attacks of the Islamic State, still yielded a number al-Baghdadi was able to attach to his statement. “92 operations,” al-Baghdadi states, “in eight countries, for the vengeance of Sham.”

Adding onto the news of the apparent success of the brief, but wide-spanning campaign, al-Baghdadi still, as always, claims ISIS will win the end.”Our battle today is a war of attrition,” al-Baghdadi says, “to harm the enemy, and they should know that jihad will continue until the [Final] Hour.”

The promise of victory in the end, after massive hardship, has been something of a mainstay of ISIS releases since the battle for Baghuz began. Despite losing almost every piece of territory they held, having been forced into a tent city crowded beyond belief, in videos like “Meanings of Constancy”, ISIS leaders and fighters still insisted that if they continued asking God for forgiveness, and invoked His name in prayer, then the final triumph would soon again be in reach, to burn their enemies on the hills of Dabiq.

While praising the actions of the fighters in Libya and elsewhere who took part in the “Vengeance for Sham” campaign, al-Baghdadi also acknowledges the pledges of allegiance given from Burkina Faso and Mali. While those pledged to ISIS in these countries have proven deadly, their numbers are few, no more than 10 in number according to photos released.

Finally, to ward off any more rumors about his death and suspicion not extinguished by his clear appearance, al-Baghdadi mentions the recent re-election of Netanyahu and the toppling of Bouteflika in Algeria and al-Bashir in Sudan, and he is critical of the efforts of the protesters while still celebrating their fall. “They will replace one tyrant for another,” al-Baghdadi states. His blanket, cynical criticism contrasts with the organization his group broke away from, al-Qaida, who celebrated the protesters openly but still called for them to be firm and call for Islamic governance.

Following the closing of the main video, we reach the coda, where al-Baghdadi in a separate speech, praises the deadly attacks in Sri Lanka and an attempted attack north of Riyadh. This separate audio recording signals the span of time this video was very likely to have been recorded from April 12 to 22 of this year.

al-Baghdadi’s speeches finished, the video ends with his companions showing him booklets of documents. On each of them, read the names of the many provinces the Islamic State claim to be in operation. Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, the list goes on, but one of them has a wholly new province labeled: Turkey. There has been no bay’ah published or even announced, and it’s not known how legitimate this provincial creation may even be. While many have speculated on how big a development this may be, this so-called province could also go the way of Wilayat al-Haramayn, a province created in 2014 that was supposed to conduct attacks in the area of Mecca and Medina, and was announced to fanfare by al-Baghdadi in a speech then, but never materialized.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and an unknown associate look over a book of documents with “Wilayat Turkey” as the title on its cover.

The Construction of Authenticity

Something that must be stressed is while the presentation may be fairly bare-bones and minimal, there are many background touches that give away how delicately constructed this video was. The Ramadan sermon in Mosul had multiple camera angles and setups for different stages of the speech on the minbar, but there were no breaks in between, no time for al-Baghdadi to be stopped midway through speaking. Throughout the video, frames are blended together, camera angles are shown from places cameras were never pictured before, and there are even is a fade out/fade-in at one point to separate one of the stages of his speech from the other.

As Calibre Obscura, a weapons identification expert has noted, al-Baghdadi has likely consciously chosen the weapon poised beside him as well. A “post-1986 AKS-74U,” as he puts it, “has huge significance.” The weapon has been seen pictured alongside Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi before him, having become a symbol of jihadi resistance since they were first captured from the Soviets during their invasion of Afghanistan. Jihadi experts like Cole Bunzel, as well as ISIS supporters online, noted the deliberate compositional comparisons with Zarqawi as well, both in gun usage and in the general setting.

Osama bin Laden, Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, all with the AKS-74U.

While al-Baghdadi may choose to compare himself to bin Laden and Zarqawi, he still comes from very different positions than either of them. bin Laden always spoke with an attempt at a scholarly air, never screaming or shouting, but promising the destruction of the West with an eerie calm. Zarqawi, by contrast, was a fiery speaker, making his hatred for the Shias of Iraq known to even those who could not understand the language of his vitriol. al-Baghdadi has attempted to strike an uneasy balance. He was never as unhinged as Zarqawi, but was still incredibly passionate with his words. He was never as calm and collected as bin Laden, but he still spoke with poetry and with ample references to the Qur’an and the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The primary difference, however, lies in their collective histories. bin Laden, while having been chased out of Afghanistan and into hiding, still was a highly feared figure up until his death at the hands of an American raid. Zarqawi, despite dying an early death in an airstrike, really only saw his organization continue to expand and become stronger. al-Baghdadi has seen the organization he leads have an immense amount of power, and then have it all dashed away.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s late spokesman, asked of God in a speech in 2014, “O Allah, if this state is a state of the Khawarij, then break its back, kill its leaders, bring down its flag, and guide its soldiers to the truth.”

In this speech by al-Baghdadi, it is difficult to come away with the impression that many of the group’s supporters have that the pseudo-state has only been dealt a temporary loss. al-Baghdadi is no longer railing against enemies and calling on the faithful to join him, but almost seems to be imploring those who are listening to stick with the group, even after so many thousands have died and thousands more fled. This is not a calmness driven by new-found wisdom or religious devotion, but one caused by having had its back broken.

Séamus Malekafzali

Writer. Interested in media analysis and nationalist movements.

International Review