BAGHDAD: The first appearance of self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video shot in an Iraqi mosque illustrates the extent of his jihadist group’s control and confidence, experts say.
Baghdadi, whose group ISIS holds territory in both Iraq and Syria, called for Muslims to “obey” him during the prayer sermon at the Al-Nour mosque in Mosul Friday, according to the video distributed online the following day.
The appearance was surprising for a militant who cultivated an image of a reclusive battlefield commander.
It is the latest in a series of moves that have brought ISIS – now calling itself the Islamic State – back to prominence after it had been on the ropes, culminating in the offensive it led last month that captured chunks of Iraqi territory.
“Put simply, one of the most wanted men on earth was able to travel into central Mosul and give a 30-minute sermon in the most venerated mosque in the largest city under control of the most notorious jihadist group of our time,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
“The fact that Baghdadi has appeared publicly at all in such a central location underlines the extent of confidence felt within his organization,” Lister added.
ISIS spearheaded a Sunni Arab militant offensive that captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, on June 10.
The video posted Saturday showed a portly man clad in a long black robe and turban with a thick graying beard – purportedly Baghdadi – addressing worshippers at weekly prayers in central Mosul.
Superimposed text identified the man as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the name Baghdadi took when the group on June 29 declared a “caliphate,” the pan-Islamic political entity last seen in Ottoman times, in which the leader is both political and religious.
“God has granted your brothers, the Mujahedeen, victory and a conquest after years of patience and holy struggle, and enabled them to achieve their objective,” the preacher tells the congregation in the recording.
“And they have rushed to declare an Islamic caliphate and to appoint an imam [leader], which is a duty for Muslims, a duty that had been lost for centuries that had been absent from reality, making many Muslims ignorant of it,” he added.
“I have been burdened by this great affair, I have been burdened by this trust, a heavy trust,” the man said. “I was appointed to be in charge of you, though I am not the best or better than you, so if you see me in the right, then help me, and if you see me in the wrong, advise me and put me right.”
In an audio tape released last week, a voice purporting to be Baghdadi called on Muslims worldwide to take up arms and flock to the “caliphate” it has declared on captured Syrian and Iraqi soil.
The video of Baghdadi’s sermon was shared widely on social media. At the beginning of the video, the man purported to be Baghdadi slowly climbs the mosque’s pulpit one step at a time. Then the call to prayer is made as he cleans his teeth with a miswak, a special type of stick that devout Muslims use to clean their teeth and freshen their breath.
The camera pans away at one point to show several dozen men and boys standing for prayer in the mosque, and a black flag of the Islamic State group hangs along one wall. One man stands guard, with a gun holster under his arm.
Some residents of Mosul told Reuters that they had witnessed a man introduced to them as Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in the center of the city Friday.
The three witnesses said the man had entered the mosque flanked by gunmen wearing uniforms worn by ISIS militants.
“We held our breath out of fear and surprise,” said a worshipper who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another eyewitness said: “A man from the group started to speak to us in a loud tone in eloquent Arabic saying that Amir al-Mumineen [commander of the faithful] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is here to give Friday’s speech, and he asked everybody not to use mobiles to take photos or film, for security reasons.”
A third worshipper added: “The speech lasted for around 20 minutes, then the man wearing black who was introduced to us as Baghdadi took the lead in the Friday prayer and then, after finishing, he left with dozens of his followers in a long motorcade.”
It marked a remarkable turnaround for the group under Baghdadi’s leadership.
When he took over the group, then an Al-Qaeda affiliate and known as the Islamic State of Iraq, it was believed to be reeling from the U.S. military’s “surge” of troops and the decision of Sunni tribal militias to turn against it and fight alongside American forces.
But it slowly rebuilt its resources and command structure, later capitalizing on the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria to expand into the country last year.
Baghdadi subsequently cut all ties to Al-Qaeda, and his influence now rivals that of the group’s global chief, Ayman al-Zawahri.
His group is known across both Iraq and Syria for its brutality, having executed and crucified its opponents in Syria and carried out a litany of bombings across Iraq.
“Everything about the group ... has been daring, so it makes sense that Baghdadi would step out of the shadows and into the limelight,” said Will McCants, a former counterterrorism adviser at the United States State Department.
“Baghdadi’s sermon doesn’t make sense from a security perspective but it does make a lot of sense in the context of his competition with Al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihad,” said McCants, now a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
The jihadist group has attracted thousands of foreign fighters to its cause, including many from Western countries, drawn in particular to Baghdadi, who is believed to have joined the insurgency in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and spent time in an American military prison in the country.
The would-be militants are also attracted, experts say, to the fact that ISIS is seen as working toward an ideal Islamic emirate and, compared with Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, has lower entry barriers.
It has also sought to appeal to non-Arabs by producing magazines and videos in English as well as other European languages.
“This video will likely feature in future ... recruitment videos,” said Ahmad Ali of the Institute of the Study of War.
“Baghdadi has long sought to position himself as the leader of global jihad in competition with Zawahri and other figures in the Al-Qaeda central structure. The control of Mosul and other areas in Iraq is the perfect moment for him to establish himself as the main jihadi leader.”
“Therefore, a public appearance is important for a ‘caliph.’”