With a new video, the Islamic State’s long-elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has reemerged. His message was simple: ISIS’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria has fallen, but the global community forged by ISIS lives on. That makes his video something of a rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s December claim that ISIS was “defeated.”
The first question to ask about the video is: Why release it? Baghdadi has been, for almost five years, a ghost, not seen publicly since July 2014, when ISIS released a video that showed him speaking at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. For the world’s most wanted man, any link to the outside world is a vulnerability, a possible vector for intelligence agencies and militaries to find and eliminate him. Breaking a half decade of silence carries the risk of death. Baghdadi, however, evidently concluded that being seen and heard from right now outweighed that risk. And that’s surely because ISIS faces dangers as an organization that are more significant than the ones Baghdadi does as an individual.
What ISIS did that was new and different was declare a caliphate and actually establish one on real, physical territory. That was the heart of how Baghdadi distinguished ISIS from its predecessor organization, al-Qaeda; and that was the core of ISIS’s call to arms, which ultimately yielded thousands of foreign fighters and scores of deadly attacks worldwide. ISIS also created something other terrorist groups had only dreamed of cultivating: a sense of virtual community to which those who otherwise felt adrift and detached from their real communities were drawn. That’s part of why those who attacked their own communities in ISIS’s name shouldn’t be dubbed “lone wolves.” ISIS’s astonishing achievement was in making these vulnerable souls feel not alone, and instead like part of something bigger than themselves, no matter how far away.