The Islamic State has released a video of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group’s reclusive emir, leading prayers in the city of Mosul.
In late June, the Islamic State declared that it had established a caliphate with Baghdadi as its ruler. According to his group, Baghdadi is now known as “Caliph Ibrahim.”
The group’s caliphate declaration has been controversial within jihadist circles. A common critique has been that followers cannot and should not pledge their allegiance to a ruler they haven’t even seen. In an era in which images and video are easily disseminated and broadcast, this critique carried some weight. The Islamic State’s leader was rarely heard from and never seen. Only a few confirmed photos of Baghdadi existed prior to the newly-released video.
But Baghdadi and the Islamic State have now answered that criticism by posting a significant video of its leader delivering a sermon with a relatively calm and assured delivery.
Baghdadi addresses another criticism of the Islamic State’s caliphate without explicitly telling the audience that he is doing so.
Jihadists and other Islamic organizations have dismissed the caliphate because the Islamic State formed it without consulting other recognized authorities. Baghdadi answers this charge by claiming that the jihadists, buoyed by recent victories in Iraq, were simply fulfilling their “duty” to declare a caliphate.
“As for your mujahideen brothers, Allah has bestowed upon them the grace of victory and conquest, and enabled them, after many years of jihad, patience, and fighting the enemies of Allah, and granted them success and empowered them to achieve their goal,” Baghdadi says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Therefore, they hastened to declare the Caliphate and place an imam, and this is a duty upon the Muslims – a duty that has been lost for centuries and absent from the reality of the world and so many Muslims were ignorant of it.” Baghdadi concludes, “The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it, and they have done so, and all praise is due to Allah.”
The Islamic State has earned a bloody reputation in Iraq and Syria because the organization is frequently at odds with other jihadist groups, even those that are supposedly its ideological kinsmen. This has opened up Baghdadi and the Islamic State to the charge that declaring the caliphate was merely a self-serving attempt at a power grab.
Baghdadi responds, without recognizing his critics, by portraying himself as a humble servant. “I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi says, according to SITE. “I was placed as your caretaker, and I am not better than you. So if you found me to be right then help me, and if you found me to be wrong then advise me and make me right and obey me in what I obey Allah through you.”
The Islamic State’s jihadist critics will surely scoff at Baghdadi’s claims. As the infighting between groups has raged in Syria, the Islamic State has refused various peace entreaties from some of the most widely-respected jihadist ideologues. He has shown no desire to be advised by anyone outside of his most trusted inner circle.
The video sends other signals to would-be supporters as well. Baghdadi is secure enough in Mosul, which was seized by a coalition of his forces and its Iraqi allies last month, that he can record a lengthy sermon without fear of being struck down by his enemies. And because he is shown leading prayers, Baghdadi is hoping to convince his audience that he has the proper religious credentials to be a legitimate leader.
The future is, of course, uncertain. It is unknown if the Islamic State will be successful in ruling over its newly-acquired territory, or if it will falter.
But if the group holds onto the fruits of its land grab, then the world has just been given its first look at an aspiring dictator.