The elusive chief of the Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared for the first time in five years in a propaganda video released Monday by the jihadist organization.
The video released by Al-Furqan on Monday shows Baghdadi with a bushy grey and red beard, wearing a black robe with a beige vest and seated on the floor with what appears to be a machine gun propped up next to him. He is speaking with three men seated opposite him whose faces were covered and blotted out.
It is unclear when the footage was filmed, but Baghdadi referred in the past tense to the months-long fight for Baghouz, IS’s final bastion in eastern Syria, which ended last month.
“The battle for Baghouz is over,” he said.
But he insisted that IS’s operations against the West were part of a “long battle,” and that IS would “take revenge” on members who had been killed.
“There will be more to come after this battle,” he said.
He claimed the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka, which killed over 250 people and have been claimed by Islamic State, were “part of the revenge” that awaits the West.
Baghdadi, 47, had a long grey beard that appeared dyed with henna and spoke slowly, often pausing for several seconds in the middle of his sentences.
He appeared for the first and last time in public in Mosul in 2014, where he declared an Islamic “caliphate” in the swathes of territory IS then held in Syria and Iraq.
Baghdadi’s disappearance from view coincided with a number of unconfirmed reports of his death, as the international community rallied to defeat the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq.
In an apparent bid to prove the video’s freshness, Baghdadi made repeated references to current events, including Benjamin Netanyahu winning the elections in Israel and the fall of longtime dictators Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir in Algeria and Sudan.
The fall of Baghouz was touted by US President Donald Trump as the end of a once vast so-called caliphate controlled by the jihadi group that stretched from western Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.
Experts have warned that the group and branches inspired around the world may still be active.
With a $25 million US bounty on his head, Baghdadi is the world’s most wanted man, responsible for steering his chillingly violent organization into mass slaughter of opponents, and directing and inspiring terror attacks across continents and in the heart of Europe.
Many of Baghdadi’s top aides have been killed, mostly in US-led coalition airstrikes.
Although largely seen as a symbolic figurehead of the global terror network — he was described as “irrelevant for a long time” by a coalition spokesman in 2017 — al-Baghdadi’s capture would be a coveted prize for the various players across both Syria and Iraq.
But so far, he has eluded the Americans, Russians, Syrians, Iraqis and Kurds.