Islamic State (ISIS) has released a recording of what appears to be a recent speech by the group’s leader - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has gone by several names and titles including Abu, Abu Bakr, and al-Baghdadi. His real name has been reported to be Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri. Likely to have been born in 1971 near the city of Samarra in Iraq, public details about the ISIS leader and his past are scarce. While American and Iraqi intelligence agencies believe that he has a PhD in Quranic studies from Saddam Univesity in Baghdad, a biography that was widely shared in online forums of extremist groups claimed that he has a doctorate from the Islamic University of Baghdad.
In 2004, he was arrested by US forces and held as a “civilian internee” at both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention centers where he was likely held for a period of four years (although even this can’t be confirmed as US authorities claim to have released him as a “low level prisoner” in December of 2004). It was in 2010 when he emerged as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and by 2011, the US had declared him a terrorist and offered a bounty of $25 million for information either leading to his capture or his death.
Since then, there isn’t a lot available in terms of videos or audio pertaining to Baghdadi. He made a video appearance in 2014 where he was recorded giving a sermon in Mosul. An audio recording of his voice was also released in 2016.
Since 2014, there have been multiple reports of his death and all of them have been subsequently debunked. The Iraqi Air Force in 2015 said that it had targeted and bombed al-Baghdadi's convoy but stopped short of announcing that he had been killed. However, details later emerged that noted that he wasn’t part of the convoy. Similarly, in 2016, several news agencies in Middle East said that a US air strike killed him but by November an audio recording emerged of his voice that essentially put that rumor to rest as well.
In June 2017, Russia announced that its forces might have killed Baghdadi in an air strike in Syria. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei subsequently also confirmed that Baghdadi was dead.
However, it seems that the elusive militant is still alive. He has reportedly broken his silence after 11 months and released an audio recording. In his speech, he references a number of recent events such as the nuclear threats against Japan by North Korea and the US. He also spoke about the battle waged by ISIS in areas like Mosul. In the recent months, Iraqi army has gained ground in many of these regions. He said, “The fighters in Mosul refused to surrender the city at the cost of their flesh and blood. Only after a year of fighting.” He also directly referred to people in Syria noting, “What have you benefited from your pact with your supporters other than truces with [Shias]? Turkey and the [Awakening Movement] will give you nothing. If it was not for us, you would be worse off.”
US intelligence has claimed that without verifiable proof of his death, they are assuming that Baghdadi is still alive. Additionally, authorities have said that they have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the audio that was released. A spokesman with the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence told CNN, “We are aware of the audio tape purported to be of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and are taking steps to examine it. While we have no reason to doubt its authenticity, we do not have verification at this point.”
Our assessment is that Baghdadi’s audio recording is likely a message to the Western nations that he is still alive and continuing the ISIS agenda. The group’s has lost its stronghold in the region with pockets of ISIS fighters confined to Raqqa in Syria, and areas south of Deir ez-Zor. However, the group is unlikely to regain its foothold in the area. Baghdadi has given little specific instruction to the ISIS followers on what they should be doing moving forward.