Recently an eighteen minutes video, believed to be of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has surfaced in the cybersphere. The video indicates that al Baghdadi is very much active and has passionately addressed his followers and advised them to start a war of attrition against forces of evil. There are many aspects of the sudden emergence of the ISIS leader after a gap of nearly five years since he delivered a sermon in Al Noori Mosque in northern Iraq in 2014. There are three possible scenarios which can be visualised at this particular point in time.
First, the surprise appearance of al Baghdadi indicates that he wants to boost the morale of ISIS forces still fighting in bits and pieces in fragmented corners in the region. We, therefore, might see such appearances more frequently in the near future since it will provide the requisite traction for ISIS and its followers. It may also radicalise more persons online and start a kind of mobility in its recruitment base. An upsurge in foot soldiers influx rate may also be observed not only in Middle Eastern countries but also in the European region as well.
Second, if the ISIS leader again goes underground and does not resurface after considerable time then it may indicate that his sudden appearance was symbolic just to indicate to the world that he is alive and though his organisation is in a tight spot he is still weathering the storm. It may also indicate that he can pop up anywhere anytime to give direction and instructions to his acolytes fighting against forces of infidelity. Interestingly, the video shows an automatic rifle placed behind al Baghdadi with three unknown men sitting beside him. The weapon indicates that al Baghdadi has now assumed the charge of a battlefield commander rather than limiting himself to the strategic ideas and spiritual leadership of the group. Hence he appears quite different than the times of his declaration of claiming Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014. He at that time was standing on the podium of Al Noori mosque and dictating instructions to his audience to establish their control in the region. Now he seems to be apprehensive and is trying to reestablish the organisation by supporting ISIS affiliates in different countries, including Mali, Sudan, Algeria, and Burkino Faso. He has also vehemently supported terror attacks in Sri Lanka and cites them as the revenge of the organisation for its defeat in Baghuz in Syria. The location of al Baghdadi is also not known and a greater probability exists that it might be somewhere in or around an adjoining country of Syria.
Third, though he acknowledges defeat in the last stronghold in Syria, he still vows to strike back. Al Baghdadi’s support of multiple suicide terror attacks in Sri Lanka highlights ISIS reach and access though there might be a possibility that such responsibility was accepted to re-energise the organisation’s esteem and confidence. There is another likelihood that the ISIS top leadership or some senior members of the organisation might shift to other regions, especially in South Asia, in order to directly influence the foot soldiers present in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Moreover, such a move may also attract followers from nearby areas and the support of the organisation may swell in a short period of time. Such a scenario may become a reality if the current confrontation between Iran and the United States escalates and translates into a major conflict with the former losing a considerable territory which might incentivise ISIS to grab the opportunity and control it. The top ISIS leadership or its senior command can then try to entrench itself in border areas of Iran or cross over to Afghanistan to attract more support through a change of loyalties of field soldiers who are currently with Taliban factions. A major dent in the rank and file of Taliban forces may result in internal dissension leading to its weakening and enfeeblement, thus giving an edge to Afghan National Army and allied forces to pounce upon them for a possible retrieval of occupied Afghan territories. The other regional countries, in such a scenario, may not sit idle and will have to get themselves dragged into the war cauldron, thus forging a direct or indirect alliance with Afghan forces against ISIS. The Taliban may also change their ground tactics and concentrate more on targeting ISIS rather than Afghan forces to reduce their influence and strength.
ISIS has already announced wilayah restructuring encompassing Afghanistan, a portion of India, border regions of Iran along with part of north western areas of Pakistan which therefore poses a greater challenge for the latter. The situation in erstwhile tribal areas may get worse due to direct contact of the ISIS senior command with local followers and posting of their messages on social media. They might use historical religious analogies to attract followings to wage a war against infidel forces. The tension between Pakistan and her eastern neighbour may rise again since chances of any attack on the Indian soil may enhance manifolds.
As the temperatures increase between Iran and the US, the chances are that a corridor may be created for the trapped ISIS ground forces to move towards Iranian territory from Syria, thus bringing the war to the home turf of Iran. The latter’s involvement in Syria may also get reduced as it focuses inwardly without giving any territorial leverage to ISIS. The moment ISIS finds a territorial space, al Baghdadi may reiterate his announcement of the caliphate with considerable ground forces to engage Iran in a war of attrition. The situation, therefore, looks ominous for the regional security as the American warships arrive in the Persian Gulf amid rising tensions between the two countries.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2019.