Experts say that ISIS’ leader is taking a big risk to capitalize on the Sri Lanka attacks — and that it’s a ‘big middle finger’ to counterterrorism forces

  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of the Islamic State terrorist group, has made his first appearance in roughly five years.
  • In a video released Monday, al-Baghdadi sought to rally the group’s followers now that its so-called caliphate is destroyed, and he praised those behind the deadly Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka.
  • Experts told INSIDER that al-Baghdadi took a big risk in making this appearance but did so to recruit and fundraise off of the Sri Lanka attacks and to send a message that the Islamic State was not defeated.
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The elusive leader of the Islamic State terrorist group on Monday showed his face for the first time in roughly half a decade, and experts say he took the huge risk to capitalize on the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been rumored dead or severely wounded several times. But in a video released Monday, he appeared to be in good health as he delivered a nearly 20-minute address.

In 2014, al-Baghdadi sent shockwaves around the world when the Islamic State – also known as ISIS – took over a large swath of territory across Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. As of last month, ISIS has lost its territorial holdings in the Middle East, and its so-called caliphate fell when US-backed forces captured the Syrian village of Baghouz from the group.

Read more: ISIS released the first video of its leader in 5 years, showing him discussing the group’s defeat in Syria and the bombings in Sri Lanka

But the militant group still has thousands of fighters and a lethal network across the globe.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that killed at least 250 people. The coordinated attacks were among the deadliest linked to the group and its affiliates, and al-Baghdadi praised those responsible as he sought to rally the group’s followers in Monday’s video.

The video and al-Baghdadi’s reemergence are a “way for him to say that even without the land, the message of the Islamic State lives on,” Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who is an expert on terrorism, told INSIDER.

“It is definitely an attempt to keep the Islamic State’s brand alive, while taking advantage of recent events – like Sri Lanka – to show that the group can still inspire and coordinate attacks,” Soufan said.

The battle in Iraq and Syria “might be over” for ISIS, Soufan added, “but it can live on in so many other places.” He noted that much of the language in the new video encouraged followers to “act locally” in support of the group.

A ‘moment of transition’ for ISIS

David Sterman, an expert on terrorism and violent extremism at the New America Foundation, told INSIDER that ISIS was at a “moment of transition due to its territorial collapse” and “keeping its spot as a leader of the affiliate network and inspired attackers requires strong messaging – something that benefits at this time from their recent major attack in Sri Lanka.”

Peter Mandaville, a professor of international relations at George Mason University, said Monday’s video was “reminiscent” of clips from Osama bin Laden while he was in hiding during the mid-2000s after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The video clips were used by bin Laden to demonstrate that “even as Al Qaeda was dislodged from Afghanistan, the broader struggle continued in other regions,” Mandaville told INSIDER.

“So, this is an effort by Baghdadi, above all, to prove his group’s ongoing relevance,” Mandaville added.

It’s a ‘big middle finger’ to the global counterterrorism force

Peter Vincent, a counterterrorism expert who served as a Homeland Security official in the Obama administration, described the video as a “big middle finger to the global counterterrorism infrastructure committed to destroying [al-Baghdadi] and the so-called Islamic State.”

Vincent told INSIDER that with this video, al-Baghdadi was “purposely running the risk” that the clip could provide intelligence that might lead to his capture because he wanted to send a message to the world that he’s still “very much alive and viable.”

“Given the recent attack in Sri Lanka that appears to have had some international operational support, this video is al-Baghdadi’s way of saying that he’s still in control and is still calling the shots, literally and figuratively,” Vincent added.

Vincent said that even though ISIS had lost its core territory, the group was not yet defeated and the “concept of the Islamic State remains an extremely powerful recruiting mechanism for thousands of disaffected and alienated men and women across the globe.”

Read more: ISIS’ ‘caliphate’ is no more – 14 photos of its last days under a US-backed onslaught

Releasing this video is such close proximity to the Sri Lanka attacks is meant to maximize recruiting and fundraising, according to Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Biddle told INSIDER that ISIS’ recruiting and fundraising had “always been more international than many such groups’.” He also suspects ISIS is “sensitive” to President Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that the group has been defeated.

“I imagine they’re interested in making maximum hay from something as newsworthy as the Sri Lanka attacks to impress on potential recruits and donors that they’re not dead, they’re not gone, and they remain an important player,” Biddle said.

Biddle added that by showing al-Baghdadi to be alive, the group bolstered this narrative and offered ISIS “valuable publicity.” “That’s arguably worth some degree of risk at this particular moment,” Biddle said.

He also pointed to research showing that the less territory the group controlled, the more lethal it had been.

“There’s no good reason to assume that they will become less lethal now that they control less territory,” Biddle said.

In short, ISIS appears to be starting a new chapter, and the Sri Lanka attacks could be a bellwether of its plans.