On Thursday 13th November an audio recording of ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi was released by the group on social media networks. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics identifies nine points that reveal the strategy and objectives of ISIS, including subtext, religious significance of the language and the effect that Muslim scholarly criticisms are having.
The audio recording of ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi released by the group on social media networks on Thursday 13th November comes around a week after widespread but unconfirmed reports that Baghdadi had been killed by a US air strike near Mosul. Although the text does not specifically mention the strike, it seems clear from the timing of the release that the principal purpose is to demonstrate that Baghdadi is alive, although the choice of the audiotape format raises the question of whether he may have been injured.
The statement seems particularly directed to an audience of those who are already participating in ISIS, with language that appears designed to boost morale in the face of recent setbacks such as the failure to seize the town of Kobane in Syria, and damage inflicted by internationally coordinated air strikes, but Baghdadi also extends the discourse to encourage participation from those in other key areas affected by conflict, including the Sinai, where the main salafi-jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was recently reported to have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Here are nine points that reveal something of the strategy and objectives of ISIS:
- Saudi Arabia is a key target: Baghdadi addresses a section of the speech to jihadis in Saudi Arabia, referred to as the "land of al-Haramayn", meaning the two holy places. This represents the primacy of the cities of Mecca and Medina in ISIS rhetoric as well as implicitly rejecting the authority and legitimacy of the Saudi King over Hijaz and Najd. Saudi citizens are referred to as "people of Wala and Bara" (a Salafi belief in loyalty to all that is Islamic and disavowal of everything that is not), invoking the country's official Salafi ideology, something not seen in his references to "mujahideen" in other countries. Baghdadi knows that this resonates among the Saudi religious masses raised on the language of tawhid and al-wala wal-bara.
- A focus on the Middle East and North Africa: One of the biggest centres of jihad since 1979 has been in Central and South Asia – but Baghdadi makes no mention of Pakistan, Afghanistan or India. Likewise, a big concern in the West is the recruitment of Western Muslims – but Baghdadi makes no mention of Europe or the United States, except insofar as they have forces in the Middle East. He is focused on establishing his Islamic State first in the Middle East.
- ISIS expects Western troops on the ground: Baghdadi mocks the West and its Arab allies for failing to stop its rise, and derides the aerial bombardment of ISIS positions as ineffectual. He notes the recent American deployment of 1,500 further advisors to the Iraqi army, predicting that they will be forced to "come down to the ground and send their ground forces to their deaths and destruction". Drawing on the apocalyptic identification of the US with Rome, he states that ISIS – "by Allah's promise" – will be victorious.
- The only legitimate leadership can be that of the Caliph: Baghdadi states that the true leader of the global Islamic community has returned, and his assumed title "Caliph of the Muslims" leaves no room for any other religious or political authority. This literalist understanding of sharia advocates for jihad as a means to creating the caliphate, and as a way of expanding the territory of the state. He calls for nullification of other Islamist and Salafist groupings, which he expects will pledge allegiance to him.
- Muslim scholarly criticisms are having an effect: He refers to the "criminal sorcerers from amongst the scholars" who "bewitch the peoples' eyes and deceive the general Muslims" by issues fatwas denouncing ISIS. This indicates that the slew of fatwas and statements against ISIS that have emerged over the past months (reviewed here) have been heard by the ISIS leadership, and Baghdadi is concerned over the effect they might have on recruitment or on ISIS members. Baghdadi is in defensive mode.
- Shia Muslims are a greater threat than other groups: Baghdadi calls on jihadis in Saudi Arabia to attack the Shia "first", followed by the regime, and finally Western forces. This follows his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's tactic of attacking the Shia in Iraq and thereby unleashing wider sectarian warfare in which Sunni tribes rally around ISIS as their defenders.
- ISIS is the Muslim army that will usher in the end times: Baghdadi litters the speech with references to "the Jews" (directing attacks on ISIS), the Crusaders and Rome. These all play into apocalyptic narratives of ISIS as the Muslim army of the end times: great battles between Muslims and Jews, and Muslims and Rome are expected to be signs of the end of days. But the focus on "the Jews" also plays into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories rife across the Middle East that "the Jews" secretly control world affairs (indeed, there have been many conspiracy theories posited by anti-ISIS voices that the group was set up by Israel).
- A narrow definition of jihad as violent struggle: He describes jihad as the "best of deeds and the peak of Islam". The struggle is presented as a shared one between groups in Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and further afield, tied to a perceived humiliation and shared grievance on the part of the whole Muslim community with their current absence of leadership – which ISIS seeks to exploit.
- The speech is underpinned by scriptural literalism: Baghdadi consistently calls upon Quranic verses for justification and rejects anything interpreted as religious 'innovation' since the time of the Prophet. Interpretational literalism is the primary building block of the Salafi theopolitical worldview, which ignores historical scholarship and literary context (not to mention metaphor, nuance, poetry and mysticism) when reading religious scripture. This is a radical break from mainstream Muslim history.