Baghdadi video’s message to the world

A rare and new video of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released on Monday (April 29)  five years after he appeared on a video for the first time sends a message that he is not dead, is still the boss and the terrorist group is not finished yet after the fall of its last Syrian stronghold, Baghuz.

The authenticity of the video released by Islamic State’s media arm could not be immediately verified. The video gives no clue on when or where it was shot. But the man on it resembles the person identified as Baghdadi on the June 2014 video of him delivering a sermon at al-Nuri mosque in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul.

In the sermon video, the self-styled caliph of IS looks younger, thinner and more confident as he stands at the pulpit of the mosque in black robes and calmly makes a point by raising his right index finger.

In the second video, a fat and greying leader not so confident sits cross-legged on the floor with a machine gun at his side. He is heard telling a group of followers that the battle of Islamic State is far from over.

The sense of insecurity writ large in Baghdadi’s face is understandable after the loss of Baghuz to the US-backed Democratic Forces in March this year.

In the sermon video, he is heard explaining what IS stands for to those gathered at al-Nuri mosque. In the post-Baghuz video, he comments on contemporary political events including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election, protests and leadership change in Sudan and Algeria, and the recent serial blasts in Sri Lanka.

While Baghdadi is shown all along the 18-minute propaganda video, he fades out towards the end with only his off-screen voice heard as he speaks on the recent serial blasts in Sri Lanka.

The Easter Sunday attacks were to avenge the loss of Baghuz, he says.

Besides warning the world that the assertive IS boss can still organise terror strikes across the world, the video tries to boost the morale of its supporters and fighters and encourage other Islamist groups in Asia, Africa and Europe to commit violent acts to gain attention and foothold in their respective regions.

The video’s release after the serial blasts in Sri Lanka is significant. The coordinated attacks in Colombo and elsewhere were carried out by a local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) led by cleric Zahran Hashim who, like Baghdadi, drew people to his side through his speeches.

NTJ has pledged its allegiance to Baghdadi who may be hiding somewhere in the desert along the Iraq-Syria border. It is surprising that Sri Lanka, which had efficiently tackled terrorism in the past, failed to rein in NTJ and its leader.

Bangladesh is another South Asia nation where local terrorist groups such as Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have bombed public facilities such as cafes and killed bloggers, publishers, social thinkers and members of minority communities in cold blood.

These groups commit acts of violence in the name of Islamic State to gain global attention.

One welcome sign is that incidents of terrorist attacks have come down over the past one year because of Dhaka’s tough policies and hard work put in by the security forces.     

Neighbouring India is a recruitment hub for IS. In the past, many misguided youths from states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh had died or gone missing while fighting for the terror group in Syria and Afghanistan.

New, tech-savvy recruits are picked using social media. Preachers like Zakir Naik and Zahran Hashim played a key role in spreading extremist ideology among youth in South Asia.

Among the youths radicalised by them is Riyas A alias Riyas Aboobacker 29, a native of Palakkad in Kerala linked to the Sri Lanka blasts. Riyas told investigators that he was under pressure from IS to carry out suicide attacks in his home state but the local handlers did not show much interest.

While the debate will continue on whether Baghdadi is dead or alive, governments should be worried about the potential rise of Baghdadis.