Return of the ‘Caliph’

Does the reappearance of the IS leader signal the start of Stage 2?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It may be pure coincidence that both the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group Abu-Bakral-Baghdadi and the head of Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), Abu-Muhammad al-Joulani, resurfaced at the same time last week. The former issued an audio recording which was broadcast by the al-Furqan outlet, and the latter was shown inspecting one of his group’s command post in the northern Syrian Latakia province. There may be no connection between the two appearances. But they are highly significant at a time of growing Syrian and Russian preparations for an offensive against the city of Idlib aimed at restoring state sovereignty and overcoming all the extremist movements that currently control it.

Baghdadi sought to used his 45-minute broadcast, which followed a full year of silence, to confirm he is still alive and directly refute all the news reports claiming he was killed in Russian or American air strikes. Like the late Osama Bin-Laden, he included remarks aimed at proving that the recording was recent, such as referring to the US sanction imposed on Turkey earlier this month and the crisis in relations between the two countries over the arrest.

The whereabouts of the self-styled ‘Caliph’ Baghdadi remains unknown and is hard to determine, especially since IS lost more than 90% of the territory it used to control when he proclaimed its Caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Nouri Mosque in June 2014. There is speculation that he is in hiding in areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border that remain under the control of his organization, and also that he has left to join one of the organization’s branches elsewhere such as in Libya, Afghanistan or Yemen.

Two key points from the recording stand out to the specialist observer.

First, the IS leader to sought to lift the morale of his followers after the huge losses IS sustained in Iraq and Syria, notably of their two capitals in Mosul and al-Raqqa. He hailed his fighters as conquering lions and stressed that the main requisite of victory is not the possession of missiles and warplanes but of faith and determination.

Secondly, he issued a renewed call for terrorist attacks using bombs, knives or cars against IS’ enemies. He urged the citizens of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan to topple their governments, and exhorted his followers to take up arms against the Shia and apostate Sunnis as well as the Americans, Russians and Westerners in general.

A careful reading of the speech, and between its lines, gives the impression that the leader of Daesh is looking to launch the second stage of the organization’s strategy. This entails going underground after having losing the above-ground battle, and employing terrorist attacks similar to those carried out by al-Qaeda in its earlier phase – on the grounds that the so-called ‘enablement’ stage has ended and would be hard to try to resume after the fall of Mosul and al-Raqqa.

Going underground and resorting to clandestine action may make IS more dangerous and would be less costly for the organization in material terms and personnel. The powers seeking to target and eradicate the group will henceforth be dealing with shadows and secret sleeper cells rather than gunmen holed up in urban centres as has been the case for the past four years.

It may be premature to link the recent terrorist attacks in London and Paris, and the events in Salt in Jordan, to Baghdadi’s recording. But it is not unlikely that this broadcast will trigger some response from sleeper cells, especially in Europe and the West. The speech, and the incitement it featured, should therefore be taken very seriously.