What ISIS’ Leader’s New Message Means for the Terror Group

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gives a sermon in Mosul, Iraq on July 4, 2014.

Last Wednesday, the world was shocked when an audio message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph (religious and political leader) of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was published on the internet. The terror group’s elusive leader has been presumed dead on multiple occasions ranging from 2015 to 2017. However, reports of al-Baghdadi’s death have been dispelled with the release of audio recordings, the penultimate of which was published by ISIS’ al-Furqan media wing on September 28, 2017. Although last Wednesday’s recording was undated, it was likely made within the past three weeks, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. This is because it references current events, like the United States’ August 1 sanctions against Turkey for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor.

In his 55-minute speech, which was entitled “Give Glad Tidings to the Present,” al-Baghdadi urged his followers to keep fighting in Iraq and Syria despite heavy losses. He exclaimed,

“For the believer Mujahideen, the scale of victory or defeat is not counting on a city or town being stolen or subject to those who have aerial superiority, or intercontinental missiles or smart bombs, and not how many followers they have, the scale depends on how much faith the worshipper has.”

Al-Baghdadi’s tone was markedly desperate, as he pleaded with ISIS militants to continue fighting against Russia, Syria, and the West in the Middle East. He said, “Oh Caliphate soldiers…. trust in God’s promise and His victory… for with hardship comes relief and a way out.”

In his audio recording, al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric against the US was much harsher than usual. He claimed that “America is going through the worst time in its entire existence,” boasting that the US and Russia are fighting for power in the Middle East. Additionally, he condemned US sanctions against Turkey for its imprisonment of pastor Andrew Brunson. Perhaps his harshest critique of the US was that it had failed to eradicate ISIS, claiming, “The mujahedeen have the credit in breaking the halo of [the United States’] power… [the US] boasted of its so-called victory in expelling the state from the cities and countrysides in Iraq and Syria, but the land of Allah is wide and the tides of war change.”

In addition to urging his troops to continue fighting the US, al-Baghdadi also encouraged his soldiers to continue the terror group’s religious campaign against Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria, as well as “apostate” Sunni Muslims who oppose ISIS. He also declared that supporters in Western countries should continue their attacks on innocent civilians, proclaiming,

“The supporters of the Caliphate should follow in their path, and trust in Allah, and carry out an attack that breaks [the West’s] heart, and rip them apart, either with gunfire or a stab to their bodies, or a bombing in their countries.”

Despite the ferocity of his words, al-Baghdadi’s audio message is meant to distract his followers from a simple, sobering truth: ISIS is losing. The terror group controls only 2% of the territory it formerly possessed in Iraq and Syria, which, at its peak in October 2014, was roughly the size of Great Britain. Furthermore, ISIS has suffered a string of losses in recent months, especially in Afghanistan. On August 1, ISIS’ Afghan affiliate, Wilayat Khorasan, was defeated by the Taliban during a two-battle in the northern province of Jawzjan. 200 to 250 ISIS fighters surrendered to the Afghan government, and 128 surrendered to the Taliban. Eight Taliban and six ISIS fighters were killed in the fighting.

The battle of Jawzjan holds immense significance for ISIS’ future, as the group lost all of its possessions in northern Afghanistan. Now, ISIS only has territory in the country’s southern Nangarhar province. Furthermore, Wilayat Khorasan was dealt an even bigger blow on August 25, when its leader, Abu Sayeed Orakzai, was killed in an airstrike along with ten other militants. While it’s inevitable that another leader will replace Orakzai, his death will stymie the group’s plans for some time. However, ISIS still has 3,500–4,000 troops in Afghanistan, so regardless of its current incapacitated status, it will remain a threat.

An ISIS fighter speaks to a journalist after surrendering to government forces in Afghanistan, August 1, 2018.

Having been defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria in 2017, according to a July 27 report by the United Nations Security Council, ISIS is transitioning from a proto-state structure into an underground terrorist network. The latter was the status the group had before it formed a government in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Since ISIS is turning into a smaller, more covert organization, it will become a more challenging adversary to defeat. The group’s tactics will become more guerilla-based, as its use of suicide bombers, small, rapid attacks, and improvised weapons will become more common. Furthermore, the UN report estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria combined, with many hiding in Iraq’s Anbar desert, the Ghadaf valley and Husseiniya, as well as the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour.

Additionally, the UN report states that “Despite the damage to bureaucratic structures of the so-called ‘caliphate,’ the collective discipline of ISIL is intact. The general security and finance bureaus of ISIL are intact.” This is dangerous because if ISIS’ infrastructure remains intact, it can still coordinate attacks in foreign countries, the Middle East, Asia, Africa. It also means that its genocide of the Yazidis is still ongoing, as not all Yazidi sex slaves have been recovered and are still in transit. Thus, if the financial and business aspects of ISIS are intact, it means Yazidi women and children are still being sold. According to the head of the Yazidi advocacy group Yazda, around 3,000 Yazidi sex slaves are unaccounted for and are likely still in the hands of their ISIS captors. Furthermore, ISIS’ “caliphate” outside of the Middle East remains a threat, especially in West Africa, Afghanistan, and East Asia. Therefore, while ISIS has suffered debilitating setbacks within the past year, it has not been defeated and aims to continue jihad against its enemies.

Salafi-Jihadi protesters demonstrate in Gaza, September 2012.

In addition to showing its willingness to fight, al-Baghdadi’s message also shows that ISIS has not abandoned its Salafi-Jihadi interpretation of Islam. Salafi-Jihadism forms the core of the group’s religious ideology: it advocates for a return to the form of Islam practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an, Sunnah, and Sharia law, and the constant fighting of nonbelievers. In the recording, al-Baghdadi perfectly encapsulates Salafi-Jihadism when he orders his Syrian followers to keep fighting, exclaiming,

“You have no choice. If you want to live in dignity, then you return to your religion and fighting your enemy. It is not only about carrying weapons, but also… do not accept anything but Sharia law and die in order to achieve this.”

Since ISIS is as much of a religious movement as it is a political one, al-Baghdadi cleverly intertwines his message with Islamic theological concepts to galvanize his followers. Aside from the more obvious references to faith in al-Baghdadi’s recording, its title, “Give Glad Tidings to the Present,” has far deeper religious significance. The title is an excerpt from the 155th verse of the second chapter of the Qur’an, which states, “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient.” Essentially, the verse reassures believers that even though they might endure great pain, they will prevail if they have faith in God.

With the Qur’anic verse, al-Baghdadi connects his message to the Islamic concept of al-Qadar, which means “predestination.” Al-Qadar posits that God has a plan for all of creation, which spans from the beginning of time to the end of time. Thus, al-Baghdadi tries to link his group’s recent setbacks to God’s plan, saying that Allah is testing ISIS through hardship. Al-Baghdadi encourages his soldiers to have faith in God, interpreting the verse to mean that, thanks to God’s plan, ISIS will persevere through His tests and achieve victory.

While ISIS hasn’t been defeated physically or ideologically, it is undoubtedly in a much more precarious position than in previous years. The group’s recent defeats in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have caused it to slink back into the shadows and lick its wounds. It is doubtful that ISIS will ever regain its former strength, and it is safe to say that its global influence will continue to decline as a result. However, that does not mean the world should let down its guard. ISIS remains a formidable foe, one that has caused immeasurable death and suffering. The international community must continue to attack ISIS at every turn, destroying its leadership, bureaucracies, financial resources, and soldiers. When ISIS is unable to communicate and coordinate attacks effectively, it will finally be erased from the face of the Earth.