What ISIS really wants
Aside from its preachy opening, Baghdadi’s speech charted a course for ISIS to regroup. In one key passage, he called for lone-actor attacks in Western countries, including bombings, car-rammings, and gun and knife attacks. Previously, such calls only came from ISIS’s former spokesman; coming from the self-styled caliph himself, they’re likely to carry more weight. Baghdadi even quantified his expectations: One attack in the West equals a thousand in the Middle East—a ratio that recalls the Irish Republican Army’s campaign of terror in Britain decades ago, which stipulated that one bomb in Britain was worth 100 in Northern Ireland. ISIS, like the violent Irish nationalists before it, knows that such attacks will garner more publicity and spark greater reaction than the slaughter of 200 Druze civilians in southern Syria or a car bombing in the heart of Baghdad.
Baghdadi also claimed that Donald Trump’s America is suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of its two-decade war against jihadists in the region. He cited tensions between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s imprisoning of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, U.S. sanctions against Turkey, and the Erdoğan government’s refusal to abide by the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. This is all happening, he said, while the “patch of jihad is expanding.” Indeed: Unlike in Baghdadi’s previous speeches, in which he raged against ISIS’s internal dysfunction and territorial losses, this time he seemed confident of his group’s ability to weather the current storm.
To explain how ISIS will transition into an insurgency, Baghdadi pointed to the past. He echoed the iconic words of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the original founder of the group, from 2006: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” the town in northern Syria that, according to some interpretations of Islamic tradition, will be the site of an epic battle between Muslim and Christian armies. ISIS has often pointed to Zarqawi’s statement as prophetic, since no signs of instability in Syria had existed at the time he made it. At two points in his speech, Baghdadi referred to Iraq as the source of the spark, and said that the war has been renewed following the loss of territory.
Baghdadi also referred to the Sunni tribal fighters who helped the United States extricate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ISIS’s predecessor, from Sunni towns and cities back in 2007. Despite being outnumbered, ISI launched a successful years-long campaign to eradicate those Sunni fighters, as part of a strategy also articulated through ratio: one bullet against the American occupier, and nine bullets against the apostates. Most of one’s forces, he suggested in the speech, should be focused on the enemy within.