Last week ended with a surprise communication from the infamous head of ISIS Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The 46-minute recording was the first audio communication from the militant leader in nearly a year, with the last received message having taken place in November 2016.
In the recording, Al-Baghdadi encourages his followers to "beware of retreat, or the feeling of defeat, beware of negotiations or surrender. Do not lay down your arms" referring to fighting groups loyal to the Caliphate in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and North Africa.
The date which this recording was taken was specified in the content, however references to relatively current events, including North Korean threats against Japan and United States and other recent developments in key conflict areas, shows that the statement was made not long ago. This brings to a close any rumors that Al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid in Syria in May of this year.
So what are the implications of this latest message?
First could be the triggering of new tactics used by Baghdadi’s followers. Militant propaganda has real-life influence, not just spurring attacks but the methods used to implement them. The released speech gave the following instructions to militants: “Oh soldiers of Islam in every location, increase blow after blow, and make the media centers of the infidels, from where they wage their intellectual wars, among the targets.” This call to target Western media assets may increase such attempts and should indeed be considered a warning to journalists and media personnel, especially those operating in the Middle East and Islamic countries.
From a broader perspective, the Baghdadi recording should probably be seen as an attempt by the Islamist leader to keep his organization together after a long string of failures on the battlefield.
The truth is, ISIS is on the run.
The liberating of Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces in May and the recapturing of Sirte in Libya by government troops in June were major military setbacks for the Islamic State. Mounting US involvement in these areas of conflict does not help ISIS’s position either.
In his latest message, Abu Bakr is speaking to a likely disheartened following, trying to keep the flames of radicalism from going out after continued failure on the frontlines.
As for Baghdadi himself, the ISIS leader will now go back to his elusive hiding in the large swath of desert between Iraq and Syria, evading US drones and Russian raids.