COMBATING TERRORISM CENTER WEST POINT June 2019
On April 29, 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, made his second-ever appearance on film. Seated in a bare room alongside three others, he was filmed taking stock of his ‘caliphate’s’ last few years and setting it on a new strategic course (if a well-worn one in its history) back to an insurgency. German intelligence and security agencies concluded that it was indeed al-Baghdadi, and thanks to a few carefully placed references to political developments in Algeria, Sudan, and Israel, his appearance was date-stamped to sometime in mid-April.1 In the days that followed the release of this video, journalists and security services pored over it, seeking to glean clues as to al-Baghdadi’s health and location.2 Disappointingly, his handlers did not leave anything to chance, the security of the ‘caliph’ being too important to risk with sloppy film-making. This did not detract from the video’s importance, however. Indeed, it offered a treasure trove of strategic insights, especially when considered from broader historical and strategic perspectives.
In this article, the authors explore those insights through a comparative lens, arguing that the image of al-Baghdadi is a metaphor for the ‘caliphate’ itself. The authors compare the embattled guerrilla ‘caliph’ of 2019 with the triumphalist ‘imam caliph’ of 2014 in his first video appearance from Mosul’s Nuri Mosque. Al-Baghdadi’s performances in these videos shed light on how the Islamic State intends to transform perceptions around the role of its ‘caliph’ to complement his movement’s strategic trajectory.
To this end, the discussion proceeds as follows. First, drawing on a tranche of internal Islamic State media documents, the authors explain why it is not just what these videos deliver that matters, but how they deliver it as well. Having done this, they consider the 2014 release in which al-Baghdadi first appeared, analyzing both the nature of his speech and how it was framed. Then they turn to his more recent 2019 appearance, subjecting it to the same analysis. They conclude by comparing these two versions of al-Baghdadi the ‘caliph,’ observing how projections of his authority changed with time to reflect the shifting operational essence of the Islamic State and his supposed status as amir al-mu’minin.
Framing, Propaganda, and the Islamic State
In 2018, a new collection of documents was added to the Department of Defense’s Harmony Archive.3 Captured in 2016 and 2017 during “operations targeting senior Islamic State Khurasan personnel in Afghanistan,” they were comprehensively analysed in Daniel Milton’s 2018 CTC report, Pulling Back the Curtain: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Media Organization.4
One document that did not bear much scrutiny in that report but that stands out as particularly relevant for the discussion at hand was entitled “A short summary for the media mujahid on the topic of photography.”5 Stipulating how Islamic State media operatives should work through the pre-, mid- and post-production process, it explains that videography is at the “core of jihadi media work,” and for that reason, it should be done well. During any filming, it states, three components—framing, the rule of thirds, and the exposure triangle—should be considered as things upon which the success and meaning of the video “depends.” The latter two refer to technical compositional matters like perspective, lighting, and focus. While they are important, it is the first component—framing—that matters most here.
The principal aim of framing, the document explains, is to aid the transmission of the “intended message.”6 Any project that does not take it into account risks failure “from all perspectives,” and for that reason, media operatives should “absolutely never” attempt to make propaganda without it in mind. Instead, they need to take “everything” into account, starting with the intended “message and idea” and “ending with the angles of the shots.”
The document goes on to describe what effective framing looks like, using the example of a hypothetical video geared toward “promot[ing] the faith of the soldiers of the Islamic State.” First, it suggests that these soldiers, whoever and wherever they are, should be filmed while sitting in a study circle around a sheikh. This setting is presumably being suggested because it would imply they are obedient and devoted Muslims. The soldiers should also be “wearing the same uniform except for the sheikh who is wearing different clothes.” This would cement their position as students and the sheikh’s as their teacher. Moreover, they should be sat on the ground with the sheikh above them “on a chair [with] a table in front of him and on the table books and a half-filled water bottle.” The sheikh’s elevated position would signify his importance, the books on his desk his intellect, and the half-empty bottle the fact that he has been lecturing for some time already. As well as this, the document suggests a few recommended “angles of filming”—among other things, eye-level shots of “the brothers sitting in circles” and footage captured from behind one of them to “show the sheikh” sitting above—and notes that the various contents of the scene (in this case, books, clothes, bottles, chairs, and desks) should all be “related to the intended message” of the final product.
If this is anything to go by—and it should be, considering it was produced by the Central Media Directorate and disseminated internally as instructional advice for distant production offices7—the Islamic State thinks through the framing of its propaganda very carefully, leaving nothing to chance and investing everything with meaning. Applying this knowledge to the present context, it is not enough to simply consider what al-Baghdadi says and does in these videos. How he says it and the theater of the presentation matter just as much.
Video I: The Spiritual Savant
On July 5, 2014, Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State’s official media dissemination network circulated links to a video entitled “Exclusive coverage of the Friday khutbah and prayer in the Grand Masjid of Mosul.”8 Produced by the Furqan Media Foundation, the Islamic State’s oldest and most important propaganda office, it was some 20 minutes long and released the day after al-Baghdadi made his first physical appearance as ‘caliph.’ Pared back, containing none of the usual graphics or audio overlays associated with the Islamic State’s media output, the video showed al-Baghdadi, its newly declared ‘caliph,’ giving his first sermon to the ‘people’ of Mosul. Aside from a short sequence showing the outside of the mosque, there was little else to it.
Speaking generally about the idea of the Islamic State and only referring to its enemies in abstract terms, al-Baghdadi called on his supporters to “perform jihad fi sabilillah (incite the believers and be patient upon this hardship),” noting that the rewards for doing so were multiplied during the month of Ramadan, which was then ongoing. There were only a few times at which he went beyond generalities like these.
Al-Baghdadi also provided an account of the significance of Ramadan, establishing some of the rudiments of the Islamic State’s take on it specifically and Islam generally. Dressed in black, channelling the image of the ‘Abbasid caliphs (for whom black was the official state color), it was only after pausing for a moment to whisper a few supplications to himself that he embarked on the speech. Without stumbling, he made his way through the 13-minute-long sermon, quoting the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition throughout and expertly intonating his speech. Al-Baghdadi’s surroundings crystallized his presumed status as spiritual leader of the Islamic State. It was no coincidence that he was appearing in public in Mosul’s landmark Grand Nuri mosque—with the city’s trademark adjoining and decidedly leaning minaret (Al-Hadba’a, or Hunchback)—and named for the 12th Century Seljuk ruler Nuridin al-Zengi.a The founder of the Islamic State movement, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was obsessed with al-Zengi’s ruthlessness against the crusaders in battle, and his quest to unite Islam against the foreign invaders was something the Jordanian militant aspired to replicate when he gave his first public speech in Iraq in early 2004 called “Join the Caravan.”9 By tying into this heritage, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself the successor to the city’s historic legacy. Nor was it an accident that he was appearing there on the first Friday of Ramadan. This was an implicit expression of his confidence as ‘caliph.’ It showed that he, as one of the world’s most wanted men, believed it worth the risk to appear before ‘his people’ at that place and time. The obvious subtext to this was that the new ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State was willing to sacrifice his life for his duties. Given the extraordinary risks associated with producing propaganda featuring al-Baghdadi and the potential for lethal security breaches in the aftermath of these media releases, the Islamic State’s strategists must consider the benefits to outweigh considerably these tremendous negatives.
In this video, al-Baghdadi was not just being framed to look the part. He was being framed to make his ‘caliphate’ look the part, too. Dressed in clothes that signified his religious authenticity, speaking in a manner that drove home his apparent grasp of ‘true’ Islam, and situated amidst his civilian masses, he was cast as a revolutionary spiritual leader, a man of the people who was simultaneously removed from them, set apart by his appearance, actions, and position. He bore no arms, and his religiosity was foregrounded throughout. More than all this, al-Baghdadi’s appearance was a powerful symbolic fulfillment of a task traditionally assigned to the caliph as the ummah’s spiritual leader. Despite his authority and all the theater designed to express it, al-Baghdadi was quick to emphasize a humility inherent to true piety. At one point paraphrasing, according to William McCants,10 his namesake Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the Prophet Mohammad, he declared:
“I was appointed as a leader for you, although I am not the best of you, nor am I better than you. Therefore, if you see me upon truth, then aid me. And if you see me upon falsehood, then advise me. Obey me as long as I obey Allah in your regards.”
This reflected how the Islamic State wanted itself to be understood at the time that the video was released. It was positioning itself, through al-Baghdadi, as a revolutionary theocratic movement that sought to expand itself by empowering the Sunni Muslim masses. The spiritual savant was reinforcing the divinity of the project and the jurisprudential credibility of its leader.
Video II: The Guerrilla ‘Caliph’
Four years and 10 months on, al-Baghdadi made his second-ever appearance on film. Entitled “In the hospitality of amir al-mu’minin,” the video was again produced by the Furqan Media Foundation and, as before, significantly pared back compared to the Islamic State’s typical video releases.11 At the most rudimentary level, it was firm proof-of-life of the ‘caliph’ who had been silent for eight months and long rumored to have been badly maimed or killed. In it, al-Baghdadi and/or his important advisors clearly intended to evolve the image of the ‘caliph’ to complement his movement. This time, rather than playing the role of spiritual leader, he was cast as a wizened guerrilla commander playing a direct, day-to-day role in the Islamic State’s war.
Structurally speaking, this video was worlds apart from his 2014 appearance in Mosul. His speech was framed as a briefing to his inner circle, not a sermon to the masses. He began by reeling off a list of prominent members of the Islamic State who had been ‘martyred’ during the battle for Baghuz earlier in the year—among them many foreign fighters. Al-Baghdadi then took the time to name and praise commanders from across the media, sharia, and military departments, demonstrating that he was an engaged leader well aware of what the techno-structure and middle management of his organization were doing. He later commended those that had been involved in “the raid to avenge wilayat al-sham [Levant province],” in which the Islamic State purportedly carried out 92 attacks in eight countries in response to its defeat in eastern Syria.
Then, after accepting a string of new pledges of allegiance from groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Afghanistan, he spoke about recent political developments in Algeria, Israel, and Sudan, noting that they showed the true colors of the ‘enemies of Islam.’ Appending all this was an audio statement by al-Baghdadi addressing the attacks in Sri Lanka and the attempted bombing in Saudi Arabia, both of which took place on April 21, 2019.12 While Sri Lanka was framed as revenge for Baghuz, the attempted bombings in the Saudi town of Zulfi were framed as revenge against the “tyrant” rulers of Saudi Arabia.
The theater in the video is that of a spontaneously recorded insight into the inner workings of the highest level of the Islamic State’s command. Showing al-Baghdadi addressing what appears to be a group of his staff or commanders, staged to project normalcy in the leadership functions, is likely very different from daily realities of an organization required to operate in a completely clandestine fashion.b Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s media officials assumedly did this to present al-Baghdadi looking just as comfortable playing the role of guerrilla ‘caliph’ as he did the spiritual savant in 2014. Al-Baghdadi’s head was covered by a black ghutra and the rest of his costume was quasi-military. Sporting a khaki-colored waistcoat and charcoal grey thawb, he was seated alongside a camouflage ammunition belt and an AKS-74U assault rifle—a variant of the Russian-made assault weapon that has made countless appearances in leadership photos and statements from the likes of Ahmed Massoud, Usama bin Ladin, Ibn al-Khattab, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.c The way al-Baghdadi was shown to be directly participating in the affairs of his organization, scanning through apparent reports from various Islamic State wilayat, including a folder referencing a previously unknown wilayat for Turkey,13 and issuing directives, seems to have been designed to portray him as the archetypal warrior-scholar leader.
On the surface at least, the ‘caliph’ of 2019 bore little resemblance to the ‘caliph’ of 2014. However, when these versions of al-Baghdadi are considered in context, the continuities are just as important as the contrasts. It is no coincidence that the two times al-Baghdadi has ever appeared on film were arguably the two most pivotal moments in the Islamic State’s recent history—the point at which it formally inaugurated its proto-state chapter and the point at which it seems to have formally settled back into the battle rhythms of a global terror campaign and a uniform insurgency quite different from its previous hybrid form.14 Unlike the pomp and circumstance that typically characterizes the Islamic State’s media output, these significantly scaled-back videos seem to have been designed to focus their audiences’ attention completely and singularly on al-Baghdadi, his words and the theater of his performance.
Both sets of videographers embedded as many symbolic references as possible, geared toward establishing and reiterating Abu Bakr’s appropriateness as the group’s leader at these historical moments and for a specific strategic purpose. In that sense, the way they framed al-Baghdadi reflected the organization’s politico-military situation. Perhaps most importantly, the two videos revealed an underlying, but certainly not subtle, effort to project al-Baghdadi’s claims of authority to a variety of audiences: from factions within the Islamic State and potential supporters around the world to the Islamic State’s opponents within the global jihadi milieu. Contrasting the 2014 and 2019 appearances of al-Baghdadi reveals much about how the Islamic State intends to evolve the image of caliph to suit its strategic transitions.
The political, military, and spiritual roles historically associated with a caliph offer Islamic State propagandists some flexibility in how they portray al-Baghdadi’s authority to audiences. Over the years, the Islamic State’s propagandists have emphasized certain aspects of the caliph’s role dependent on the strategic and historical requirements of the time. View the 2014 and 2019 videos in isolation and it would seem clear that in the former, al-Baghdadi was positioned as a spiritual leader guiding his flock, whereas in the latter, he was framed as the ideal fighting commander, pulling the politico-military strings of his global insurgency. Stepping back allows the analyst to see how these performances were augmented by messaging designed to highlight the other dimensions of his authority. For instance, several days prior to al-Baghdadi’s 2014 appearance in Mosul’s Nuri Mosque, he delivered a speech titled “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the month of Ramadan”15 to highlight his acumen as a political and military leader. Within only a few days of the ‘caliphate’ being declared, al-Baghdadi thus used two public statements16 to showcase the political, military, and spiritual dimensions of the ‘caliph’s’ authority.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the Islamic State’s propagandists are still keen to project the multidimensionality of the ‘caliph’s’ leadership despite the absence of a ‘caliphate’ embedded in territory. In the month prior to al-Baghdadi emerging as the guerrilla ‘caliph,’ a statement by the Islamic State’s spokesman Abul Hasan al-Muhajir in March 201917 referred to al-Baghdadi as amir al-mu’minin, an implicit acknowledgment of his spiritual as well as political and military authority. While the content of the video featuring al-Baghdadi focused largely on his political and military acumen, it is no mere coincidence that it was titled ‘In the hospitality of amir al-mu’minin’ to again reinforce his status. These nuances are important considerations for understanding how the Islamic State is seeking to present its leader.
Al-Baghdadi’s ‘performance’ as ‘caliph’ in 2014 versus 2019 says much about the primary audiences of these videos and the strategic considerations that may be informing that targeting. In 2014, al-Baghdadi was seemingly trying to speak to the masses seeking to reinforce his credentials as the spiritual leader of the global ummah. This was projected in the intonations of his voice, his choice of clothing, his use of a miswakd, and his mannerisms throughout the Friday khutbah. All of this was designed to express his piety and, more specifically, mimic practices of the Prophet Mohammad, reinforcing al-Baghdadi’s purported lineage. In contrast, his latest video seems to be primarily addressing audiences within the Islamic State organization and broader global jihadi milieu.
As analyzed by Cole Bunzel18 and Aymenn al-Tamimi,19 the pressures of decline have exposed deep fractures within the Islamic State. This has seen some dissenting factions publicly air concerns that al-Baghdadi is ‘caliph’ in absentia while a former Islamic State jurisprudence official authored a book arguing for withdrawing allegiance to the ‘caliph.’e Al-Baghdadi sought to present himself as an engaged and caring leader, for example, by eulogizing past commanders of the ‘caliphate’s’ last stand in Syria as well as “the knights of media … Abu Abdullah al-Australi, and Khalid al-Qahtani” and “members of the Shariah Committee, headed by Abu Raghad al-Da’jani” in the opening minutes of his 2019 speech. It seems al-Baghdadi was sending a message that he is well aware of the key leaders in his organization’s management and techno-structure during crucial periods, countering accusations that others are making these decisions without his knowledge.
The guerrilla ‘caliph’ was also likely addressing another important audience: the global jihadi milieu. After all, the challenge facing the Islamic State now regarding how to maintain and project al-Baghdadi’s authority during a period of devastating decline is, in many respects, similar to that once faced by the Taliban and its own supposed amir al-mu’minin, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Indeed, it is hard to detach al-Baghdadi’s efforts to project his ‘authority’ from the historical precedence set by the Mullah Omar case. Al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State’s biggest rival in the global jihadi milieu, had countered al-Baghdadi’s early claims of authority through 2014-2015 by continuing to allude to its own subservience to Mullah Omar’s authority, apparently not knowing that he was dead.f Al-Baghdadi’s recent video appearance is arguably an effort to demonstrate that, unlike its major rival al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State’s supporters can rest assured that their ‘caliph’ remains very much alive and at the helm. In this regard al-Baghdadi’s message may prove important for boosting the morale of the ‘true believers’ operating covertly within populations formerly under the Islamic State’s control.20
The Islamic State’s efforts to project its leader as amir al-mu’minin are not occurring in a vacuum. Its jihadi opponents will seek to challenge such claims. In the weeks after al-Baghdadi’s statement, al-Qa`ida released the latest iteration of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “Days with the Imam” series in which he reflects on his time with Usama bin Ladin.21 As Hassan Hassan highlights, it is probably also no coincidence that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) released a video of its leader on May 13, 2019, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, walking openly in Syria with enemy aircraft flying overhead in stark contrast to al-Baghdadi sitting comfortably on cushions indoors from an undisclosed location.22 The Islamic State understands that its competing claims of authority within the global jihadi milieu are tied to a combination of strategic manhaj (methodology), in-field results, and the authority of its leader. This competition is likely to increase over time, especially as the Islamic State seek to project its guerrilla ‘caliph’ as amir al-mu’minin, even if one without a caliphate.
The Islamic State’s media department has been preparing its supporter base for a period of decline for many years.g Al-Baghdadi’s appearance in the 2019 video must be understood as a single act in a much longer drama that has been playing out for some time, orchestrated by a media department that (as evidenced by the video) still functions and works in close synchronization with its leadership.23 Beginning when the ‘caliphate’ was still controlling swathes of territory, then-spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech in May of 2016 defiantly looked back to the years following the collapse of the “state” project after 2007 and the years in “the desert” with the Islamic State of Iraq, and intimated that a return to a uniform insurgency looked likely.h This milestone speech was followed by Islamic State newsletter Al Naba editorials, a speech by al-Adnani’s replacement Abul Hasan al-Muhajir in April 201824 about the coming tribulations,25 and a recent series in Al Naba (#179-181, April-May 2019) explaining the Islamic State’s adaption of Mao’s three phases of guerrilla warfare.26 Al-Baghdadi’s April 2019 video release, as rare as it was, was a necessary and important marker for the movement as it tries to convince its followers to hang on for another extended down period—the type it successfully navigated a decade or so before.27 Along the way, its ‘caliph’ and his top media managers will likely continue to adapt his image and narrative to project a sense of authority, stability, and continuity through these hard times until he and his group can launch yet another resurgence.