The reappearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a recent video attempted to show his leadership over the group. But years of discontent with his rule are now threatening to come to the fore.
Much has been made of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s reappearance since the group released a video of him at the end of April. Five years on from his last public showing in Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque, when he proclaimed himself as caliph of the so-called Islamic State, the differences between the two appearances are stark.
While the group has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka during Easter Sunday, Wednesday’s attacks on the Niger-Mali border, and recently announced “provinces” in Pakistan and Turkey, where the group has no territory and minimal presence, Baghdadi’s appearance represents a wider split: differences in the group’s public vs private perception.
As many observers have stated, Baghdadi’s reappearance is an attempt for him to project strength after the end of the caliphate project in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Sitting alongside an AKS-74U, a gun used during the Afghan-Soviet war that has appeared in videos of both Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden, it was clear that Baghdadi was trying to evoke the spirit of this era, styling himself in the same way as the two former leaders.
More importantly for Baghdadi, this was his attempt to showcase his control over the caliphate. Looking through different ‘operational booklets’ and talking to an inner circle, Baghdadi wanted to give an impression of being at the forefront of the group’s new phase without territory, acting like an active leader rather than watching from the sidelines.
But behind this appearance of strength and apparent control, the reality is and always was in fact much more complex.
Ever since ISIS’ formation in 2014, the group’s projection of strength, uniformity and power have come alongside constant internal splits. When the group captured the city of Mosul in 2014, a number of ISIS militants protested against what they perceived to be “softness” of the group’s rule. Despite the mass killing of other Muslims, Yazidis and Christians, such militants constantly complained that the group did not go far enough and act brutal enough. These complaints were dismissed by the group’s leadership and a number of scholars were executed for their protest, one for trying to excommunicate Baghdadi himself.
Yet within ISIS’ inner circles, these dissenting voices remained active. In September 2017, the ISIS religious judge Abu Muhammed al-Hashimi heavily criticised Baghdadi. A veteran of the jihadi movement, al-Hashimi took his criticism one step further, saying that if ISIS’ had indeed created a caliphate, then “it was not a caliphate of a Prophetic message”. With Baghdadi nowhere to be seen, according to al-Hashimi, ISIS had been taken over by “oppressors, ignorant people and [religious] innovators”.
In 2018, another cleric Abu Yaqub al-Maqdisi condemned ISIS militants for being too quick to excommunicate other supporters and “equating themselves with God in commanding right and forbidding wrong”. Al-Maqdisi was eventually arrested, imprisoned and killed later that year. While his death was cited as the result of an airstrike, it later emerged that he was executed for his opposition.
While al-Maqdisi and others have been killed, al-Hashimi has continued his criticism of Baghdadi and the caliphate. In March earlier this year, he released a long publication entitled, “Withdraw Your Hands from Allegiance to al-Baghdadi”. The title was a play on the 2014 pamphlet published by ISIS entitled “Extend Your Hands in Allegiance with al-Baghdadi”. As with the earlier publication, Hashimi once again repeatedly rejected the claim that “the caliphate is of the Prophetic methodology”, instead blaming Baghdadi for the “injustice, tyranny and oppression” caused under the so-called caliphate.
This is the environment in which Baghdadi’s reappearance is situated: a desire to showcase his strength and retain his position as leader of the group amidst a lack of territory and internal disputes. However, the question remains, for how long can this last? Alongside Baghdadi’s markedly older look compared to his first appearance, fatter complexion compared to the emaciated militants leaving ISIS’ last territory in March, and with his whereabouts continually scrutinised, can he continue to give the impression of control and unity amidst schisms and power plays under the surface?