Does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Still Matter?
The ISIS leader, long assumed dead, has resurfaced. But is he still in control of the terror group?
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared on a pulpit in a Mosul, Iraq, mosque in June 2014 to announce his new caliphate. The event was broadcast around the world, and marked a turning point for a terror group that President Barack Obama had initially dismissed as the “JV.” Then, Baghdadi seemed to disappear.
In the time since that last appearance, Baghdadi and ISIS have seen their once sizable caliphate reduced to rubble thanks to the efforts of a coalition of more than 20 nations. The organization once laid claim to a mini-empire dominating millions of people; just a few weeks ago, it lost control of its last remaining Syrian village near the Iraqi border. Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed, and still more have been captured. All the while Baghdadi remained out of sight; save for a few audio recordings that were hard to date, he became something of a ghost. His absence sparked a cottage industry of speculation based on anonymous government officials, mostly in Iraq and Syria, who claimed he’d been killed or badly wounded.
But that narrative was turned on its head Tuesday, when Baghdadi appeared in an 18-minute Islamic State video release, chubbier and grayer than we’d last seen him, to discuss Israel’s elections, coups in Algeria and Sudan, and the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people. But more than any single talking point, Baghdadi proved that he is indeed alive and, seemingly, perfectly healthy.
While the video is certainly dramatic, its implications on ISIS are less clear, namely because Baghdadi didn’t address the question security officials across the globe continue to grapple with: Is he still really in command of ISIS?
From a tactical standpoint, Baghdadi and his inner circle are unlikely to hold much sway over ISIS’s operations, according to a Belgian intelligence counter-terror analyst who monitors the group and investigates European ISIS attacks. With multiple armies hunting them and the weight of U.S., Russian, Israeli, and even Iranian intelligence closely monitoring all the group’s correspondences throughout Syria and…