Russia said he might be dead and Iraq claimed he was injured and on the run. But on Monday the secretive leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, looked to be very much alive in his first video appearance in five years.
The roughly 18-minute videotaped propaganda message, which comes on the heels of the Islamic State losing valuable ground in Syria and Iraq, purportedly shows Baghdadi seated among other ISIS militants, whose faces are blurred. In it, he acknowledges the loss of territory while also celebrating the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka that killed 253 people on Easter Sunday. The remarks suggest the video was recorded recently.
Baghdadi hadn’t been heard from since August, when the Islamic State group released a recording of a speech he supposedly gave. He hadn’t been seen on camera since 2014, when he announced the creation of the terror group’s so-called caliphate at the Great Mosque in Mosul.
ISIS lost its last stronghold — the Syrian town of Baghuz — in March, leading some, including President Donald Trump, to declare the group defeated. But even with the fall of its caliphate, the group remains a threat inside the region and abroad.
This was evident last week, when ISIS took credit for the terror attacks in Sri Lanka that were first linked to the little-known extremist group National Taweed Jamath. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told CNN Monday that the suicide bombers involved in the attacks had “very clear” ties to the Islamic State.
Baghdadi specifically cites the fall of Baghuz in the video released Monday, and says the attacks were in retaliation for their loss of land. He claims the group will now forge a “battle of attrition.”
“Truthfully, the battle of Islam and its people with the crusader and his people is a long battle, and the battle of Baghuz finished and manifested in it was the brutality and savagery of the nation of the cross toward the nation of Islam,” Baghdadi says in the video, according to a translation from the New York Times. “At the same time, it showed and manifested the courage, fortitude and persistence of the nation of Islam.”
Baghdadi also says he’s accepted claims of allegiance from militant groups in Burkina Faso and Mali, according to BBC.
It can’t be said for sure that the man in the video is Baghdadi, despite the terror group's claims. The man in the video is grayer in the beard and more heavy-set than the Baghdadi last seen triumphantly announcing his caliphate on camera five years ago. It’s also not clear when the video was recorded, although ISIS claims it was taken in April and Baghdadi can be heard praising the Sri Lankan attacks, which took place only a week ago.
Cover: The leader of the militant Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video.