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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s message illustrates ISIS threat

The group has regressed to Al Qaeda-style terror attacks in the wake of major territorial losses

The old city of Mosul during the offensive to retake the city from ISIS fighters. Fadel Senna / AFP
The old city of Mosul during the offensive to retake the city from ISIS fighters. Fadel Senna / AFP

From the steps of Mosul’s Al Nuri Mosque in July 2014, two weeks after ISIS seized control of the city, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”.

What followed was a genre of extremism the world had never before witnessed, as Al Baghdadi’s fighters tore through towns and villages in Iraq and Syria, subjugating their people and building institutions typically associated with a sovereign nation. Citizens of the “caliphate” had driving licences and paid taxes. Rules were severe and punishments savage. Markers of a previous time, like the Al Nuri Mosque, were demolished.

Four years on, ISIS has lost virtually all of its territory, following a concerted international military effort. But despite the collapse of its geographical empire, the group has retained the capacity to capture the hearts and minds of disenchanted young people across the world, as recent deadly attacks in France, Indonesia and Belgium attest.

Yesterday audio emerged, purportedly of Al Baghdadi, calling for attacks in the West. It is the first apparent recording of the ISIS leader since last September and confirmed what many feared – that far from being dead, ISIS is merely reinventing itself, regressing to Al Qaeda-style terror tactics in the wake of major territorial losses.

The timing – during Eid and on the anniversary of the day in 1996 when Osama bin Laden issued a “declaration of war against the Americans” – is not circumstantial. The ISIS threat might have changed, but today it is no less ominous.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi speaks at the Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul in 2014. Reuters
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi speaks at the Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul in 2014. Reuters

As The National reported on Monday, the campaign to defeat it has slowed because the militants have retreated to tunnels and cave complexes in an apparent shift towards guerrilla tactics. It is a strategy advocated by the deceased ISIS spokesman and foreign operations chief Abu Muhammad Al Adnani, who offered a grim prediction before his death: ISIS will never be defeated, Al Adnani said, because no military struggle could defeat the group’s ideology.

Attempts to dismantle ISIS’s networks must continue in earnest. And that begins with rooting out Al Baghdadi, who analysts and defectors believe to be hiding in the vast desert regions between Iraq and Syria.

The secrecy and discipline of the ISIS leader – who learnt from his more flashy predecessors killed by foreign bombs – has boosted his cult of personality. Only seen once on camera, Al Baghdadi has a $25 million US bounty on his head.

The return of foreign fighters to Europe, where they are unlikely to settle for quiet lives, has put ISIS front and centre again. And the more its territorial dominance in Iraq and Syria has receded, the more it has resorted to lone-wolf attacks in major cities. With fresh audio of Al Baghdadi – not heard in months – that grim threat rises further.