For nearly a year, Islamic State-watchers had wondered whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group, was alive. Then on Wednesday, he resurfaced for the first time in 11 months, releasing a recorded speech to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. In the 55-minute speech—his longest of those that have been made public—he referenced recent events, indicating that it was recorded over the past few weeks.
The speech came amid reports of a resurgence by ISIS in Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk in Iraq, all areas the group lost some years ago; overall the group has lost around 98 percent of the areas it once controlled. The speech also followed eyebrow-raising estimates by both the Pentagon and the United Nations that the group still has more than 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Affiliates in countries like Afghanistan and Egypt have also been noticeably more deadly and active in recent months. ISIS, in other words, has seemingly undergone an orderly transition from caliphate to insurgency without fracturing. In his speech, an emboldened Baghdadi drew on ISIS’s history—a small militia within a large network of insurgent groups waging war against Americans—to rally the faithful.
Aside from its preachy opening, Baghdadi’s speech charted a course for ISIS to regroup. In one key passage, he called for lone-actor attacks in Western countries, including bombings, car-rammings, and gun and knife attacks. Previously, such calls only came from ISIS’s former spokesman; coming from the self-styled caliph himself, they’re likely to carry more weight. Baghdadi even quantified his expectations: One attack in the West equals a thousand in the Middle East—a ratio that recalls the Irish Republican Army’s campaign of terror in Britain decades ago, which stipulated that one bomb in Britain was worth 100 in Northern Ireland. ISIS, like the violent Irish nationalists before it, knows that such attacks will garner more publicity and spark greater reaction than the slaughter of 200 Druze civilians in southern Syria or a car bombing in the heart of Baghdad.
Baghdadi also claimed that Donald Trump’s America is suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of its two-decade war against jihadis in the region. He cited tensions between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s imprisoning of American pastor Andrew Brunson, U.S. sanctions against Turkey, and the Erdogan government’s refusal to abide by the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. This is all happening, he said, while the “patch of jihad is expanding.” Indeed: Unlike in Baghdadi’s previous speeches, in which he raged against ISIS’s internal dysfunction and territorial losses, this time he seemed confident of his group’s ability to weather the current storm.
To explain how ISIS will transition into an insurgency, Baghdadi pointed to the past. He echoed the iconic words of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the original founder of the group, from 2006: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” the town in northern Syria that, according to some interpretations of Islamic tradition, will be the site of an epic battle between Muslim and Christian armies. ISIS has often pointed to Zarqawi’s statement as prophetic, since no signs of instability in Syria had existed at the time he made it. At two points in his speech, Baghdadi referred to Iraq as the source of the spark, and said that the war has been renewed following the loss of territory.
Baghdadi also referred to the Sunni tribal fighters that helped the United States extricate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ISIS’s predecessor, from Sunni towns and cities back in 2007. Despite being outnumbered, ISI launched a successful years-long campaign to eradicate those Sunni fighters, as part of a strategy also articulated through ratio: one bullet against the American occupier, and nine bullets against the apostates. Most of one’s forces, he suggested in the speech, should be focused on the enemy within.
Baghdadi advocated for a tactic that ISIS has turned to, with great success, numerous times: eroding Sunni factions through a combination of targeted killings and recruitment. He promised the same fate would meet the Syrian rebels. He also appealed to the rank-and-file to desert their “treacherous” leaders, who he accused of betrayal after a series of surrender deals with the Syrian regime.
In another reference to the Sunni tribes, Baghdadi pointed out that Iraqi forces remain heavily reliant on American firepower to repel ISIS attacks. ISIS fighters have hunted down members of large tribes in Iraq in broad daylight, he said, despite frequent appeals by tribal leaders to Shia militias and the government in Baghdad for protection. Through the summer, ISIS appeared to be targeting community leaders, senior militia, and security forces with impunity. Pro-government forces have been ambushed by militants, and still often call in U.S. airstrikes to contain even small assaults by ISIS. Just recently, for example, around 20 fighters nearly took control of a large oil facility in the heart of an area secured by the U.S.-led international coalition in Deir Ezzor, and were only neutralized through American strikes.
Baghdadi also spoke of his group’s intent to spread its influence across the region—a recurrent theme in ISIS statements since it began losing ground in 2016. The group has tried to appeal to Saudis by speaking the language of fundamentalist Islam accepted there, and by using Sisi’s political crackdown in Egypt to appeal to Egyptians. In June 2017, ISIS struck inside Tehran, the capital of Iran, the first such attack in the history of Sunni jihadism. The militants attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, killing 17. This was part of the group’s attempt to undermine al-Qaeda, which has avoided confrontation with Iran, and to position itself as the defender of Sunnis against all of their enemies.
Baghdadi, then, is no disgruntled caliph lamenting his lost caliphate. He seems to have moved on, seeking to inspire his flock to revisit their greatest successes to plot a course to future glory. His speech made it clear that ISIS remembers the lessons of the past two decades very well. Whether his enemies also do is the difference between victory and defeat.