Intelligence experts are scrutinising the purported video message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State, for clues about his whereabouts and the terror organisation’s next moves.
The 18-minute propaganda clip, released through IS media network Al Furqan, is the first to show him alive since he declared the jihadists' now-defunct "caliphate" five years ago.
The CIA has not commented on the video, the first supposed message since an audio recording released in August 2018.
Al-Baghdadi is among the few senior IS commanders still at large after two years of steady battlefield losses with a $25 million bounty on his head.
“It is proof of life,” said Charlie Winter, a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. “If they had just released a picture of him or another audio recording there would be room to dismiss it as a body double or a fake.”
'Fatter than he was'
The speaker appears to be in good health and looks like a slightly older version of al-Baghdadi than when he was pictured in 2014, addressing followers from a pulpit to declare a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria.
He can be seen sitting cross-legged on the floor giving an address to three aides who have their faces blurred.
“His beard has got longer and more grey and he’s fatter than he was,” said Winter. “The henna dye in his beard is because the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have done the same.”
The video offers few clues to al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts, and previous Al Furqan videos have used computer editing techniques to change the background and disguise the location.
Winter believes it is likely to have been filmed in western Iraq, “although he probably moved as soon as the video was made.”
Instead, intelligence agencies will focus on how the video was produced and distributed, and what the message tells us about future IS ambitions.
The capture or killing of many other terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, was enabled by security leaks involving couriers shuttling messages to followers and the media.
“Every time someone makes and released a video, it breaks the security bubble around senior figures and al-Baghdadi is the most wanted man on earth,” Winter said. “Each communication, each meeting risks a leak that could give away his location.”
At the height of its power, IS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad.
But in 2017, the fall of its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa stripped al-Baghdadi of the trappings of a caliph and turned him into a fugitive thought to be moving along the desert border between Iraq and Syria.
The timing of the video appears to suggest an attempt to start a new chapter for IS, Winter said.
“He seems to be bookending the past five years, effectively calling and end to its aim of being a proto-state or a territorial entity and instead casting IS as an organisation with global ambitions.”
Winter added: “The fact that the video doesn’t have any of the computer-added effects suggests a different kind of message, a turning point. It is deliberately not a flashy production.”
In his purported message, al-Baghdadi pledged that “jihad will continue until doomsday.”