Defeat in eastern Syria forces Baghdadi out of his hideout

Intelligence reports suggest Baghdadi loyalists have been at odds with a competing ISIS faction seeking Baghdadi’s ouster since last September.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Where it belongs. An Islamic State flag lies in an encampment in Baghouz after the city’s liberation by Syrian Democratic Forces, March 23.  (AP)
Where it belongs. An Islamic State flag lies in an encampment in Baghouz after the city’s liberation by Syrian Democratic Forces, March 23. (AP)

TUNIS - For the first time in five years, elusive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared on video, proving he is alive despite the crumbling of his so-called caliphate.

Baghdadi’s media appearance, after the loss of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) final stronghold of Baghouz, Syria, shows that the group is looking to reinforce morale among supporters and extremist cadres in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

It comes as Baghdadi’s grip on the extremist group is reportedly slipping. Intelligence reports suggest Baghdadi loyalists have been at odds with a competing ISIS faction seeking Baghdadi’s ouster since last September. On January 7, reports claimed, the internal rupture culminated in a gunfight, forcing Baghdadi to flee Baghouz with his bodyguards.

Abu Muhammad al-Husseini al-Hashimi, a senior ISIS figure, is believed to be leading the charge against Baghdadi. Hashimi recently released a 231-page book titled “Keep Back the Hands from Allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” calling for an uprising against the ISIS leader.

In the book, Hashimi levels the first open challenge to Baghdadi from within ISIS’s senior ranks, writing that Baghdadi is a ruthless ruler who destroyed the organisation’s reputation with his oppressive and excessively violent behaviour.

This may help explain why Baghdadi was willing to risk the release of what was only his second video appearance: He needed to prove he is alive and in command.

Baghdadi’s appearance in the 18-minute clip — he looks older than his 47 years but in apparent good health — challenges US and Russian intelligence reports that he may have been killed or severely wounded in an air strike in Syria.

In fact, Baghdadi goes out of his way to appear strong, militant and resolute in the video. With a Kalashnikov rifle by his side and wearing a pocketed vest, he vows ISIS will wage a “long battle” and enact “vengeance” for the group’s defeat in Baghouz.

In a post audio recording, Baghdadi shows that he is up to speed with current events, claiming that the Sri Lanka attacks on April 21 were an act of “vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz.” Without apparent irony, he condemns the “barbarism and brutality” of the West compared with what he describes as the “courage and resilience” of ISIS fighters.

The Sri Lanka attackers claimed allegiance to ISIS but it is unclear whether the group merely inspired or directly plotted the carnage.

The video provides no clues to Baghdadi’s whereabouts but US officials and Syrian defence forces said he is likely hiding in the desert wastelands of Syria and Iraq and constantly on the move.

Baghdadi’s only prior video appearance was five years ago when he announced the declaration of the ISIS caliphate during a sermon in Mosul, Iraq.

ISIS’s final pocket of territory in eastern Syria, Baghouz, was taken by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on March 23, after which thousands of ISIS fighters and their relatives reportedly fled the city. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said many were moved to al-Hol, a camp for the displaced in north-eastern Syria that holds more than 70,000 people.

The defeat left ISIS at its lowest point since Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014. It controls no territory in Syria and Iraq, where it once reigned over large tracts of land, is waging fewer attacks and has a dwindling supply of foreign fighters and recruits. However, the group is viewed as far more powerful today than it was when US forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011.

ISIS seems to have shifted more to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, including targeted assassinations, bombings, ambushes and raids. Its fighters have also begun to reach out to decentralised supporters around the world who have no material connection to the group but share its ideology, following the strategy of al-Qaeda, from which ISIS emerged.

Even on the ground ISIS remains a threat.

US Army General Joseph Votel said ISIS has tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria who could form sleeper cells, leaving large areas insecure. ISIS affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and other countries remain active.

Since July 2018, the group has carried out more than 260 attacks outside its controlled territories in Syria, the Global Terrorism Database of the University of Maryland said.

Most of the attacks were targeted at Syrian soldiers and SDF members as well as civilians.

In April, Reuters reported a steady increase in attacks on SDF-controlled areas in north-eastern Syria on the border with Turkey, down the Euphrates River towards the border with Iraq. Residents there reported a wave of assassinations of SDF fighters and commanders in recent months.

Baghdadi’s re-emergence poses a new dilemma for US and European policymakers: How can they prevent him from re-energising decentralised fighters, regrouping fragmented elements and inspiring supporters to carry out lone-wolf attacks?

The United States responded by vowing to track down and defeat surviving ISIS radicals. The US-led coalition, the US State Department said, would “ensure an enduring defeat of these terrorists and that any leaders who remain are delivered the justice that they deserve.”

As for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian allies, the focus is on Idlib and the jihadist organisations active there, notably Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls up to two-thirds of the province.

An offensive is apparently looming, with reports of Syrian and Russian air power leading a large-scale attack on radicals’ strongholds in north-western Syria.