What was missed in the hype — as is frequently the case — was the ideological, rather than institutional, messages in the video. Institutionally, the visual references to Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi were clear: Al-Baghdadi wants to be seen as their successor. The territory he ruled might be gone, but ISIS lives on.
However, something is not quite right with this interpretation. I don’t doubt that this was the message that Al-Baghdadi intended to give, but it misses the point. The destruction of his so-called “caliphate” is more than a setback, it is the abject and utter defeat of an ideal that Al-Baghdadi embodied.
To see this clearly, we need to look back before the fall of Mosul in 2014 to the origins of the terror group’s name. In 2006, shortly after the death of Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda in Iraq joined with eight other Islamist insurgent groups to form the “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI). Their insurgency might have been at its height, but that couldn’t disguise a fundamental weakness: They held no territory, lived underground, their leaders were being picked off one by one, and the following year the US surge would reduce the chaos in the country to manageable levels.
The name reflected the group’s fundamental ambitions. For Al-Qaeda, the restoration of the caliphate was low on a list of strategic objectives and was rarely even talked about. However, the followers of Al-Zarqawi — convinced that they were in the end of days and would re-establish the caliphate themselves — were obsessed.
To call themselves an “Islamic State” was a statement of intent.
From 2006 to 2011, this statement sounded like the product of hopeless imagination. Leader after leader was killed until Al-Baghdadi — a man who hadn’t even been a jihadi until the Iraqi insurgency started, though he moved in the right circles — was elevated to the leadership in 2010.
Al-Baghdadi’s rise to the leadership coincided with huge opportunities — the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the US withdrawal from Iraq the same year. Suddenly, the ambitions highlighted by the group’s name became a real possibility. After some intra-jihadi organizational disagreements with Al-Qaeda in 2013, “Islamic State” could add “Syria” to its name and began to seize territory amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war. One year later, ISIS crashed through the Iraq-Syria border and watched the Iraqi army melt away before them.
Four years into Al-Baghdadi’s leadership of the group, he was able to declare a caliphate. God, ISIS crowed, had shown his favor. “Caliph Ibrahim” ascended the steps of the Mosul mosque and styled himself as the new leader of the global Muslim community in the image of the “rightly guided caliphs” who followed the Prophet.
The declaration of the caliphate was the climax of both Al-Baghdadi’s and ISIS’s existence. Anything less must be viewed as complete failure.
Analysis of his video, which rightly highlights that Al-Baghdadi is confidently presenting himself as a guerrilla leader in the model of his predecessors, needs to acknowledge that point. Al-Baghdadi’s confidence as a guerrilla leader is a show, a piece of propaganda to hide the fact that he has failed. He is not the “caliph” he claimed to be.
There are clues to Al-Baghdadi’s knowledge of his failure: “The battle of Baghuz has ended, and in it the barbarity and savagery of the nation of the Cross toward the Ummah of Islam was clear,” he said in the video. It is a core ISIS belief that God commands them to build the caliphate. They must wonder why the caliphate they built was destroyed.
Their explanation will follow the doctrine of divine providence — the belief that God does what He wills, and it is not for us to question (a mainstream Islamic doctrine). That is fine, except it is undermined by the unspoken motive of all that ISIS and other apocalyptic groups do to force God’s hand. “If we do this,” the idea goes, “then God will do that.”
Al-Baghdadi seeks to apply the long-standing rallying cry of Islam brought low by the perfidious West to his own defeat (despite the fact that on the ground it was primarily defeated by Muslims). This will have some effect. The threat of ISIS, which has always been underpinned by an ideology much wider than the group itself, remains severe. But let’s not view his latest video as anything other than an admission of abject defeat.