These are dark days for international jihadists. In Syria, Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda militants are being chased out of their long-held strongholds by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by Russian and American airpower respectively. Pro-government militias in cooperation with national armies also have them on the run in Libya, Yemen and Iraq. As IS’s grand facade of a ‘caliphate’ crumbles, and it devolves into an improvised insurgency capable only of mounting terrorist attacks, you have to wonder: Where in blazes is its self-styled ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
IHS Inc, the reputed information and analysis firm focused on international security, estimates IS has lost 12 percent of its territory just eight months into the year. The so-called caliphate has been steadily shrinking since late 2015, when it first suffered military setbacks in 14 percent of its holdings. Unsurprisingly, this period coincided with Russia’s entry into the regional fray on Assad’s side, and a renewed interest by the hitherto ambivalent Obama administration in disallowing Moscow from dictating Middle Eastern geopolitics alongside Iran. A motivated America can perform miracles. With US warplanes dropping hellfire, the SDF in August liberated the IS-held Syrian town of Manbij located on the key supply route from Raqqa to Turkey that will further strain the group’s ability to raise capital.
Elsewhere, Libya’s UN-recognised leadership in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord, claims IS militants are days away from being completely driven out of the port of Sirte. This will severely compromise the group’s plans to expand into North Africa. Spokespersons of the Iraqi government also inform that IS-controlled areas in the country’s northwest have dwindled from 40 percent down to 14. IS, effectively, is being routed across the Middle East yet al-Baghdadi still refuses to rally his beleaguered followers. This contrasts sharply with how al-Qaeda’s leadership has reacted to news of recent reversals.
Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s 23-year old son, widely tipped to head al-Qaeda after Ayman al-Zawahiri, has released four audio recordings since mid-2015, each closely mirroring the timbre of his late father’s jihadist diatribes. The latest one went into circulation on August 17, exhorting fellow Saudis to join the group’s Yemen affiliates, better known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to “gain the necessary experience” to eventually dethrone the House of Saud and rid Islam’s wellspring of the infidels (i.e American forces).
Al-Qaeda too has had a torrid time in 2016. Tribal fighters and forces loyal to Yemeni president Mansur Hadi backed by the Saudi coalition have retaken broad swaths of AQAP-held areas in Yemen’s Hadramout province, including the provincial capital Al-Mukalla. Moreover, faced with crushing pressure from US-armed secular forces in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra faction also filed for divorce this month, announcing henceforth the group professed “no affiliation to any external entity.”
Though IS’s media wing al-Furqan has made public three audio recordings attributed to al-Baghdadi since May last year, they all sound like Mullah Mohammad Omar speaking from beyond the grave. I reference, of course, last July when, amid landmark talks in Islamabad between the Taliban and Kabul, the Afghan spy agency NDS leaked news that Mullah Omar, despite his very recent pronouncements through the group’s media cell, had been dead for years. It turned out his (now deceased) deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour was impersonating him to prevent the movement from splintering. Is al-Baghdadi now too a sock puppet for some new IS lynchpin, since intelligence reports suggest he suffered serious, possibly life-threatening injuries in March?
It bears noting that despite IS’s wanton brutality at the height of its territorial sway between 2014 and late-2015 designed to dominate headlines worldwide, al-Baghdadi has always been a shadowy figure. Indeed, what little we know of him comes from IS propagandists. For example, the 45-year old was once monikered the “invisible sheikh” for hiding his face behind a mask while addressing battlefield commanders, and reportedly holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the Baghdad University.
Al-Baghdadi is thought to have been radicalised at the Camp Bucca detention facility in Iraq immediately following the US invasion. He soon linked up with Al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI) chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and slowly worked his way into the Majlis al-Shura of the prototypal IS in Iraq (ISI), eventually ascending to supreme leader in 2010. Al-Baghdadi’s masterstroke, one that sparked his legend, was when he united the patchwork of Islamist militants fighting Assad, America and one another in Syria and Iraq three years later under one, ominous black flag.
Befitting a man of mystery like al-Baghdadi, many versions of his life story have captivated both mainstream media and the dark web. The most explosive one comes courtesy of unidentified bloggers citing Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor turned whistleblower, as the source. Their conspiracy theory introduces al-Baghdadi as “Elliot Shimon,” a man “born of two Jewish parents” and “a Mossad agent” to boot.
Al-Baghdadi’s mission? To sow discord in the Muslim world using fringe extremists drawn to powerful Islamic symbolism so the Zionists can opportunistically carve out “Eretz Israel” (Greater Israel) from Arab lands with the connivance of traitorous local emirs. Sounds like an Ayatollah fable, but wholly unreliable? Russian President Putin didn’t seem to think so when in November last year he revealed the role of “40 countries” — a thinly veiled reference to the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel — in spawning and nurturing IS.
If ‘caliph’ al-Baghdadi is indeed an apparition, this would not be the first time IS has cleverly manipulated its media image to cloak the real power-players behind the organisation. In July 2007, US military spokesperson Brigadier General Kevin Bergner dumfounded reporters by disclosing that Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi — Abu Bakr’s predecessor — could not be hunted down because “He never existed.” Abdullah, Bergner explained, was “a fictional character” voiced by “an elderly actor named Abu Adullah al-Naima.”
Why? So the AQI’s new Egyptian chief, Abu Ayub al-Masri, could “mask the dominant role that foreigners play” in ISIS while puppeteering from behind the scenes. The incumbent al-Baghdadi may be no different.