In the early hours of November 3, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released his first statement in nearly a year – a defiant message that the group will not fade away quietly, even as Iraqi special forces breached the outskirts of Mosul, the last major city in Iraq under Islamic State’s control.
Baghdadi tried to project confidence that his jihadists would beat back the Iraqi government’s advance. “This total war and the great jihad that the Islamic State is fighting today only increases … our conviction that all of this is a prelude to victory,” he said in a 31-minute audio recording, his first since December.
But despite his bluster and attempt to boost morale for the fight in Mosul, Baghdadi’s message also signaled the latest transformation for Islamic State as it loses the core of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Two years ago, Baghdadi reveled in Islamic State’s quick expansion; he declared himself caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere.” Today, under pressure from advancing ground forces and U.S.-led air strikes, Baghdadi is looking beyond the caliphate.
Baghdadi, whose long silence fueled speculation that he had been wounded or killed, urged his followers to “unleash the fire of their anger” on Turkey, which has been fighting Islamic State forces in Syria and has closed off key supply routes of weapons and reinforcements. He also instructed supporters to launch “attack after attack” in Saudi Arabia and target security forces and the ruling Al Saud family for “siding with the infidel nations in their war against Islam.”
Perhaps most importantly, Baghdadi addressed “soldiers of the Islamic State” far beyond Iraq and Syria. He specifically named Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen, the Philippines, Somalia and West Africa. These are countries and regions where Islamic State has established “provinces” and affiliates – militant groups that include tens thousands of fighters who have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and his organization.
He referred to them as the “pillars of the caliphate,” a hint that these affiliates will now be more essential for Islamic State’s survival. He also urged sympathizers from the West who are unable to reach Iraq and Syria to travel instead to Libya, where the group has gained a foothold, especially in the coastal city of Sirte. But even there, Islamic State militants have suffered significant losses over the past six months.
Despite these setbacks, Baghdadi’s group still has the ability to attract new recruits, raise funds, secure weapons and dispatch militants to carry out attacks in the West. As it loses territory and becomes weaker in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State will have less to lose by unleashing more terror around the world.
Worried that jihadists will become more entrenched in Syria after they are pushed out of Mosul, U.S. military officials said last week that they hope to launch another ground offensive to oust the militants from their stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Pentagon officials say they fear that Islamic State operatives, including some who fled Mosul, are using Raqqa to plot new attacks against the West.
“There’s a sense of urgency about what we have to do here because we’re just not sure what they’re [Islamic State] up to, and where, and when,” Lt. General Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said at a news conference from Baghdad on October 26. “But we know that this plot planning is emanating from Raqqa.”
The plan for an offensive on Raqqa is already alienating American allies, especially Turkey. U.S. officials say the group most likely to lead a ground assault on Raqqa would be the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of U.S. and Western-allied rebel groups that is anchored by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which includes thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Turkey, which has sent its own troops into Syria and supported some rebel factions to consolidate control of territory near the Turkish-Syrian border, views the YPG and other Syrian Kurdish groups as allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the 1980s, PKK rebels have waged an insurgency against the Turkish government in pursuit of autonomy for Kurdish areas. Turkey insists that Washington must not allow the YPG to take a leading role in ousting Islamic State from Raqqa.
U.S. military officials dismiss these concerns and insist that the best-trained fighters on the ground are from the YPG. “The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” Townsend said. “We’re going to take the force that we have and we will go to Raqqa soon with that force.”
Pentagon officials say their intelligence shows that Islamic State’s plotting in Raqqa is similar to plots and attack preparation that took place for nearly two years in the border town of Manbij, which was the last stop in Syria for jihadists on their way to Europe. The mastermind of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and were sanctioned by Islamic State’s leaders, reportedly spent considerable time and received training in Manbij. The jihadists were finally ousted from Manbij in August.
“Coming out of Manbij, we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries,” Townsend said, adding: “We know that this is going on in Raqqa as well.”
In his latest message, Baghdadi struck an almost apocalyptic tone in his appeal to fighters not to flee Mosul. “This war is yours,” he said. “Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”
Soon, if the United States has its way, Baghdadi may make a similar appeal pleading with his fighters and supporters not to abandon Raqqa – and hasten the caliphate’s fall.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.