When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last appeared on video, nearly five years ago, in the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, he was all swagger and poetic bluster: a veritable don proclaiming the historic establishment of the caliphate. His talk was big and bold, as was the silver watch he was wearing for the occasion. How different he now looks in his latest appearance on celluloid: a chubby, diminutive old geezer with a badly dyed beard – a faded orange – and not a watch in sight.
And just how different he sounds, too: in that last appearance in July of 2014, he was on a massive power-rush, waxing lyrical at the pulpit about the caliphate and its divine awesomeness. In this new one, he's literally on his arse and his lyrics are flat, unpoetic and, just like that raggedy beard, a bit faded. Indeed, he now looks more like a grizzled veteran of the sidewalk than the esteemed veteran of jihad who once ruled a proto-state the size of Britain.
ISIS was notorious for making "slick" and hyper-violent videos. This latest offering is neither of those things: there is no action, and the only visual hint of menace comes in the form of the iconic Russian-made assault rifle, which is propped up behind Baghdadi, who is seated with his legs crossed.
For much of the video, the camera is focused on Baghdadi in conversation with three of his acolytes, whose faces are covered. The men are surrounded by some fancy cushions and, behind them, as the Atlantic's Graeme Wood perceptively noted, is a white bed-sheet, which is not so fancy and is meant to convey the impression that they are in a tent – and hence "keeping real", in the appropriate jihadi style.
Baghdadi talks for about 12 minutes, exalting by name the men who died in defence of the caliphate, and acknowledging his affiliates in places outside of Iraq and Syria – ISIS grandly calls these wilayats, or provinces. And he congratulates the terrorists who launched the Sri Lanka attacks on the 21st of April; he says this was retaliation for the loss of Baghuz, the junkyard that was ISIS's last remaining sliver of territory in Syria. He leafs through some brochures – seemingly reports on the ISIS affiliates abroad, though they look more like dreary undergraduate dissertations or reports that terrorism studies scholars might write. He calls for "steadfastness", which has become something of a meme in recent ISIS propaganda, a tacit recognition that the group is seriously struggling, as well as an ignominious back-track from the earlier memes of victory and expansion.
The video, though, is striking for two big reasons.
First, and most obviously, it tells us that Baghdadi is alive, thus proving incontrovertibly that those reports proclaiming his death were not just exaggerated but wrong.
Second, and more important, it tells us that Baghdadi’s authority is in such dire straits that he and his inner circle were prepared to take the monumental risk of making and disseminating a video – that may give his location away – to demonstrate that he is still alive and in control of his organisation. The broader context to this, as the Yale scholar Cole Bunzel has expertly demonstrated, is that since at least late 2017, once the caliphate started to retract and go on life-support, Baghdadi’s authority has been challenged by those within his own organisation, who felt he had mismanaged the caliphate and led it to defeat. Earlier this year, in January, there was reportedly an attempt to oust and kill him by foreign fighters in eastern Syria. Baghdadi clearly survived this, but there must now be a large question-mark over his fitness to rule.
The primary audience for the video is thus an internal one – namely, the jihadists who follow or act in the name of ISIS. And while Baghdadi implores his followers to remain steadfast, the message of the video is really about Baghdadi's steadfastness and commitment. He is saying: I remain, I am in control and we are regrouping.
The crucial question is whether his rank and file in Syria and Iraq will buy this reassertion of authority. There is really no way of knowing this. Quite what his distant followers make of it is also unclear. They will probably be buoyed by the news that he isn’t dead or severely injured. But even the most ardent follower will find it difficult to ignore just how knackered and depleted Baghdadi looks.