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ISIS leader’s video an attempt to shore up control, say experts

The propaganda video of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was released in an attempt to convince ISIS followers that the elusive leader remained in control of the global terror group and unfazed by increasing dissent within its ranks, intelligence officials believe.

Baghdadi’s return to public view in his first video appearance in five years has sparked a fresh examination of his standing within ISIS. Some observers claim his grip on power has dramatically weakened as the group has lost the land it once held, as well as its leaders and loot.

Western and regional officials say Baghdadi was trying to relaunch himself on a global stage with the 18-minute video and audio released by ISIS’s media arm on Monday. While Baghdadi spoke at length about the group’s defeat in March in eastern Syria, he devoted much of his appearance to discussing other conflicts and political events: the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, the electoral return of Benjamin Netanyahu and the fall of longtime autocrats in Sudan and Algeria.

Baghdadi’s efforts to establish himself as in control of a global organisation include his references to battles in Libya and Saudi Arabia, and pledges of allegiance allegedly given to his group in Burkina Faso, Mali and Afghanistan. He also claims to have received pledges of loyalty in Somalia, Yemen, the Caucasus, west and central Africa, and Turkey.

The structures of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have been decimated by a five-year war that culminated in Baghuz, on the edge of the Euphrates. As the “caliphate” he had proclaimed in the Grand Mosque in Mosul in 2014 collapsed, so too did the authority Baghdadi held over tens of thousands of fighters and followers, often enforced through unrelenting brutality.

Officials in Iraq and Europe believe there have been several attempts to oust Baghdadi in the past six months and that one former senior ISIS figure, Abu Mohammed Husseini al-Hashimi, remains a potent threat to his leadership.

Hashimi has come to prominence in the last month with the release of a 200-page online book that urges any remaining members of the organisation to revolt against its leader.

The core of the argument is that Baghdadi has distorted the pre-2010 ISIS project with his oppressive and tyrannical behaviour and so obedience to him is no longer appropriate.

Not a lot is known about Hashimi, whose has rapidly emerged as a figure being closely watched by analysts and intelligence agencies in the fast-shifting politics of ISIS, beyond what is revealed by his writings.

His latest book praises ISIS for reviving traditional hudud punishments under Islamic law, such as stoning for those convicted of adultery, as well as reviving the largely forgotten idea of the caliphate, whose ruler is considered a successor to the prophet Muhammad. The ISIS project, in his view, was never allowed to develop fully because of the enemies ranged against it.

In his writing Hashimi described the brutality of the Iraqi ISIS members, their grip over the executive branch of the organisation and their efforts to kill anyone who disagreed with them, which he claims are the main reason behind his call to withdraw allegiance from Baghdadi.

It is believed that Hashimi is a former aide to Baghdadi and held leading positions, including as an Islamic judge in Mosul. Somewhere in 2017 and 2018 he appears to have fled what was left of the caliphate, according to a charge sheet against another dissident, Abu Ya’qub al-Maqdisi, who was executed after being accused of treason in late 2018. One of Abu Ya’qub’s sins, according to the statement, was to be a friend of the “criminal” Hashimi, and to have known his hiding place before he fled.
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