BEIRUT • The leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi surfaced yesterday in a video for the first time in five years, indicating that he has survived the territorial defeat of the caliphate he proclaimed and retains overall control of the group.
Seated cross-legged on a flowered mattress in a bare white room, Baghdadi hailed ISIS' expansion around the globe, urged his supporters to keep up the fight and congratulated the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.
Baghdadi's beard has greyed since his only other video appearance - at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2014 - when he first announced ISIS' intention to recreate the caliphate. But otherwise, he looked to be in good health and showed no obvious sign of injury, despite reports in recent years that he had been hurt in air strikes or in battle.
Propped up beside him was a Kalashnikov rifle of the same model as that featured in videos made by Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and ISIS' first leader Abu Musab Zarqawi. Baghdadi was dressed in a black tunic and a military-style vest, and the entire scene appeared designed to emphasise his lineage in the Islamist militant movement.
The video, released by ISIS' Furqan channel, seemed to confirm the widespread belief that he survived the group's final stand in the battle of Baghouz in Syria in March. Iraqi and US officials said he was thought to be hiding out in the desert in Syria or Iraq, but the video gives no indication of his location.
Ms Rita Katz, director of the Site Intelligence Group, said the video shows the serious danger that Baghdadi still poses as ISIS leader. The appearance shows not only that he is still alive, "but also that he is able to re-emerge to his supporters and reaffirm the group's us-versus-the world message after all the progress made against the group".
The message of congratulation to the Easter attackers in Sri Lanka was delivered in a separate audio segment at the end of the video.
Baghdadi described the attacks on churches and hotels, in which at least 250 people died, as revenge for the deaths of ISIS fighters in the battle of Baghouz and not for the attack on two mosques in New Zealand in March, as the Sri Lankan government has said. "This is part of the vengeance that awaits the crusaders and their henchmen," he said, according to a translation provided by the Site monitoring service.
Tellingly, he also thanked the attackers for their pledge of allegiance to ISIS, without claiming a direct role for the group in orchestrating the bombings.
References in the video to other recent events, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's April 9 polls win, the April 11 coup in Sudan and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's resignation, indicated the main video recording was made between April 11 and 22.
Much of his message was given over to hailing prominent ISIS figures who died fighting in Baghouz, 13 of whom he named, including Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, French brothers who were suspected of playing a role in ISIS attacks in Paris.
But the main purpose of the video seemed to be to signal to followers that the group not only survives, but is also expanding worldwide. Baghdadi thanked the various groups around the world that have pledged allegiance in recent months, including those in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Western Sahara, Pakistan and Khorasan, a reference to eastern Iran.
As he spoke, one of his aides handed him folders with the names of the various ISIS "provinces", including West Africa, Somalia, Sinai in Egypt, Libya, Central Africa, the Caucasus and Turkey - suggesting that even as the group accepted new global franchises, Baghdadi retains overall control.
Baghdadi's whereabouts remain a mystery. Reports in the Iraqi and Syrian press said he is hiding out in the Badia desert region of Homs province in Syria. Iraqi security officials said he is there or in Iraq's Anbar province.
Meanwhile, ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq are heading to Afghanistan to help plot attacks against the US.
"We know some have already made their way back here and are trying to transfer the knowledge, skills and experience they learnt over there," a senior US intelligence official in Kabul told AFP. "If we don't continue counter-terrorism pressure against (ISIS in Afghanistan), there will be an attack in our homeland... probably within the year."
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE