For nearly a year, Islamic State–watchers had wondered whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group, was alive. Then, on Wednesday, he resurfaced for the first time in 11 months, releasing a recorded speech to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. In the 55-minute speech—his longest of those that have been made public—he referenced recent events, indicating that it was recorded over the past few weeks.
The speech came amid reports of a resurgence by ISIS in Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk in Iraq, all areas the group lost some years ago; overall, the group has lost around 98 percent of the areas it once controlled. The speech also followed eyebrow-raising estimates by both the Pentagon and the United Nations that the group still has more than 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Affiliates in countries like Afghanistan and Egypt have also been noticeably more deadly and active in recent months. ISIS, in other words, has seemingly undergone an orderly transition from caliphate to insurgency without fracturing. In his speech, an emboldened Baghdadi drew on ISIS’s history—a small militia within a large network of insurgent groups waging war against Americans—to rally the faithful. [Continue reading…]