Post-caliphate, Islamic State leader turns to war of ‘attrition’ against enemies

No longer burdened by territory and administration, Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi outlined the new path forward for his group: Widen your reach, connect with far-flung militant groups and exhaust your enemies with a “war of attrition.”

The deadly Easter attacks in Sri Lanka a week before his video appearance underscored this message in blood. It also highlighted the ease with which IS, like al-Qaeda before it, can inflict chaos through a loosely defined brand of global jihad in the most chilling way. That’s even after losing the relative safety of its so-called caliphate across stretches of Iraq and Syria.

“Al-Baghdadi was letting his followers know that he was prepared to lead a guerrilla insurgency in Iraq and Syria, while not forgetting that ISIS is a global organization,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, using another acronym for the group.

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Though disheveled and never standing up in the video released Monday, al-Baghdadi’s appearance alone contradicted past Russian and Iraqi claims the jihadist leader had been killed during the long war targeting the jihadists. It was the first time he has appeared in public since June 29, 2014, when he delivered a sermon from the pulpit of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

The contrasts in the appearances are glaring.

In 2014, he wore an expensive-looking watch and a neatly trimmed beard and urged Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate and obey him as its leader.

In Monday’s video, he sat on the floor, with an AK-74 assault rifle at his side like the one Osama bin Laden took in Afghanistan during the mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviets and always carried with him. He had a big bushy beard and wore a black tunic and a military-style beige vest over it.

No longer an administrator, al-Baghdadi wants to be seen as an insurgent leader. Analysts say this both glosses over the loss of territory the jihadists claimed would spark an apocalyptic confrontation with the “crusader” West and ensures he maintains his status in the extremist world.

“We believe it is really an attempt to divert attention from the core group’s heavy losses and to ensure that the franchise groups and grassroots supporters remain loyal to the Islamic State pole of the jihadist universe,” the Austin, Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor said in an analysis. “Many are saying that the video is a show of strength, but we believe it is more likely an act of desperation.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque in Iraq during his supposed first public appearance, July 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Militant video, File)
The loss of its territory cuts both ways, however. Foreign militants once part of the “caliphate” now have scattered, like they did at the end of the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and after the 2001 US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban government sheltering al-Qaeda.

Al-Baghdadi barely mentioned Iraq and Syria in the 18-minute video, except to praise the steadfastness of his fighters there. Instead, he congratulated militants in Libya, “brothers” in Burkina Faso, Mali, Pakistan and the Western Sahara for pledging allegiance.