A man thought to be the fugitive jihadist leader of an insurgent group currently laying siege to Iraq spoke publicly on Friday in a move that tacitly warned local citizens the extremist fighters are there to stay and dared the U.S. to send more troops into its former war zone.
It remains unclear whether the bearded man dressed in black robes who appears in the video is in fact Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The Iraqi Interior Ministry over the weekend flatly denied that the video released Saturday shows the actual insurgent leader, currently the target of a $10 million U.S. bounty.
Still, such a brazen demonstration is atypical of a high-profile Islamic extremist leader. And the technological sophistication required to pull off such an event signals the U.S. faces certain and perhaps unprecedented difficulties in defeating this enemy.
The speech helped cement the battlefield credentials that eluded many of al-Baghdadi’s predecessors: Unlike al-Qaida leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who historically delivered messages from hiding, the man thought to be al-Baghdadi took to a public venue in Mosul to deliver a Ramadan sermon. His group has called on all Muslims to recognize the new “Islamic State” caliphate founded in territory seized by ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
Only two known pictures of al-Baghdadi exist publicly, making it difficult to confirm the man who spoke is the same wanted leader. However, The Guardian reports cellphone service in at least part of Mosul went down upon his apparent arrival, and resumed after his departure.
“These guys know how we’re planning to counter them and they’re constantly adapting,” says Colin Clarke, an irregular warfare and counterinsurgency expert with the RAND Corporation. “It demonstrates [ISIL’s] understanding of our methods in the past, how we’ve collected signals intelligence and how we’ve conducted operations.”
ISIL may employ primitive tactics and ideology – it seeks to return its caliphate to what it considers seventh-century Islamic standards, including robbing women of almost all rights – but it is cutting-edge in terms of its ability to adapt and learn how to operate, Clarke says.
The group has even harnessed social media to spread its message of fear and intimidation.
“They’ve learned a lot. This is a learning organization,” he says.
The Obama administration has had difficulty defining how the U.S. plans to respond to ISIL’s operations. President Barack Obama initially announced in June he would send 300 troops to Iraq to help secure U.S. interests and support Iraqi security forces that have all but collapsed in the face of the enemy. That number crept up to 700 last week, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fielded a barrage of questions about how that plan jives with Obama’s promise not to deploy permanent combat ground troops back to Iraq.
“None of these troops are performing combat missions. None will perform combat missions,” Hagel said, adding that “there is no exclusively military solution to the threats posed by ISIL.”
Dempsey later said the Iraqi military likely would not be able to recapture territory seized by ISIL without outside support.
“It doesn't mean we would have to provide kinetic support,” he said, referring to operations in which U.S. forces would conduct strikes themselves. “I'm not suggesting that that's the direction this is headed. But in any military campaign, you would want to develop multiple actions to squeeze ISIL. You'd like to squeeze them from the south and west. You'd like to squeeze them from the north and you'd like to squeeze them from Baghdad. And that's a campaign that has to be developed.”
The two military chiefs refused to put any cap on the number of troops the U.S. is willing to deploy to Iraq. The U.S. bounty on al-Baghdadi indicates his Friday speech served as a nose-thumbing to the U.S. to come and get him, but it remains unclear whether any of the new troops could participate in hunting him down.
The National Counterterrorism Center documents the violent rise of al-Baghdadi to chief of ISIL – which was borne out of al-Qaida in Iraq – and points to al-Baghdadi’s squabbles with other al-Qaida organizations as he tries to emerge as the leading figure in the global anti-Western jihadist movement.
Groups such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia-based al-Shabab have, at least for now, fallen by the wayside as ISIL operates in a wide swath of the Middle East, with eyes on expansion.
“Baghdadi is now like a CEO who is laying out his group’s mission statement and rebranding the organization,” Clarke says. “He’s presenting this attainable goal – whether or not that’s true is an aside.”