Conclusive evidence that ISIS’s leader, the man known as Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is still alive despite Russian claims earlier this year that he was killed in a Russian air strike, has appeared in the form of a 46 minute long recording from Al-Baghdadi himself, which must have been made recently – after the date of the air strike in which it was claimed he was killed – since it refers to the Iraqi army’s recapture of Mosul and North Korea’s recent nuclear tests.
Publication of the recording incidentally confirms that Al-Baghdadi’s authority within ISIS is undiminished despite ISIS’s recent defeats, and that within ISIS he continues to be accepted as Islam’s true Caliph and therefore as ISIS’s undisputed leader.
When the Russian claims of Al-Baghdadi’s death originally appeared I was skeptical about them. I pointed out that within ISIS’s centralised theocratic autocracy the killing of the ‘Caliph’ – ie. of Al-Baghdadi – would be expected to have an immediate and visible impact, of which there was no sign.
Al-Baghdadi’s death has not been confirmed, and the Russian claim so far is only tentative. The BBC is reporting that ‘chatter’ on Jihadi websites – usually a strong indicator that some important Jihadi figure has been killed – is muted, though that could be more an indication of the lengths ISIS is taking to conceal news of Al-Baghdadi’s death rather than a sign that the news is untrue.
Perhaps a stronger sign that Al-Baghdadi is alive is that there has so far been no visible weakening of ISIS’s resolve. Though ISIS is everywhere in retreat, its fighters continue to put up a passionate resistance in Mosul, it continues its efforts to storm Deir Ezzor, and its well-oiled propaganda machine, complete with its slick ‘news agency’ Amaq, functions much as before.
That suggests that the central leadership of ISIS is continuing to operate as normal, whereas one would expect if Al-Baghdadi were dead that some signs of disruption would be visible.
I also pointed out that the destruction by ISIS of the Great Mosque of Mosul – the place where Al-Baghdadi originally proclaimed his Caliphate – also provided indirect evidence that Al-Baghdadi was still alive, since it looked like something he had ordered himself.
Almost certainly it was Al-Baghdadi himself who ordered the Great Mosque’s destruction, just as it was almost certainly he who back in October ordered that Mosul be defended rather than handed over to the Iraqi army.
That points to Al-Baghdadi probably being being still alive despite suggestions from the Russians a few days ago that he may have been killed in a Russian air strike. I say probably because Al-Baghdadi almost certainly gave the order that the Great Mosque be destroyed rather than be allowed to fall into ‘apostate’ hands some time ago, as shown by the carefully planned way its destruction has been carried out.
However even though the order to destroy the Great Mosque was undoubtedly given some time ago, there has to be a question whether the ISIS fighters in Mosul would have acted on the order if Al-Baghdadi was dead. Though the communications of the remaining ISIS fighters trapped in Mosul with ISIS’s leadership are doubtless sporadic and being monitored, I still think that before taking such a step they would have sought final authorisation from ISIS’s leadership – probably through a coded message – and that this would have required the agreement of Al-Baghdadi himself.
Subsequently, when the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on the basis of what it claimed was information it had been provided by sources within ISIS that Al-Baghdadi was dead, I revised my view, and began to think that he might be dead after all. It now turns out that it was my original skepticism which was right.
I suspect that some of the supposed ‘clues’ of Al-Baghdadi death, of which the report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was just one, were part of a false trail intentionally laid by ISIS in order to facilitate Al-Baghdadi’s escape from Mosul or Raqqa or wherever else he was hiding.
If so then the fact Al-Baghdadi now feels able to publish his latest recording may be a sign that he now is somewhere where he feels safe.
Though the likelihood must be that this is somewhere south of the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, where the rest of ISIS’s leadership is known to have relocated, it cannot be completed excluded that he has fled Syria and Iraq entirely, and that he is now based somewhere else where ISIS has a presence, such as Afghanistan or Libya.
I would finish by making two further observations about Al-Bagdhadi’s recording.
Firstly, there is no doubt that the recording is by Al-Baghdadi himself. Some people who still want to believe that Al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian air strike will no doubt deny this, and will claim the recording is a fake. However the recording is undoubtedly genuine and by Al-Baghdadi himself.
Secondly, the recording is basically a call for ISIS to keep fighting with the assurance of final victory despite all the ongoing defeats. However it offers no practical explanation of how that victory will be achieved, or of how what now looks like ISIS’s inevitable defeat will be avoided.
As such it reminded me of Hitler’s last public speech – delivered on 30th January 1945 – which in similarly mystical language laced with invocations of God, called on the German people to keep fighting to the bitter end until final victory was achieved, without however offering any practical indication of how that victory would be won.
Comparisons of contemporary world leaders with Hitler are made far too often, and should generally be avoided. The case of Al-Baghdadi is however something of an exception.
Like Hitler Al-Baghdadi is someone who came out of nowhere, managed amidst much horror and devastation to achieve extraordinary power in a remarkably short time, and who continues to retain the fanatical loyalty of his followers, and seems certain to go on doing so right up to the bitter end.
The final parallel, and in some ways the most fitting but also – given Al-Baghdadi’s position as a Middle East leader who is also the leader of a fanatical religious cult – the most extraordinary, is that as was the case with Hitler, it is the Russian army which seems to be the force which principally acting to bring his reign to an end.