BAGHDAD – The leader of a powerful Islamist militant group that has seized control of territory from Syria to Iraq made a rare public appearance Friday, urging his followers and other Muslims to use the holy month of Ramadan to escalate their jihad against the enemies of God, according to a video posted online Saturday.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared leader of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State, which declared the restoration of the medieval Muslim caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria last week, is purportedly shown in the video preaching to followers Friday from a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The SITE Intelligence group, which tracks extremist movements and statements, confirmed Baghdadi’s appearance in the video, which identifies him as Caliph Ibrahim. The video, published by the Islamic State’s media wing, would be Baghdadi’s first, as well as marking one of the few instances that the reclusive leader has appeared in public.
The man in the video closely resembles a photo of Baghdadi released by Iraq’s Interior Ministry in January, but with a fuller beard.
Last month, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now calls itself the Islamic State, seized control of a vast swath of northern and western Iraq, routing Iraqi forces and coming within 50 miles of Baghdad.
Iraq’s military has struggled to repel the extremists, who seized caches of advanced weaponry and vehicles from the Iraqi military during their lightning takeover of Mosul in June. Advancing across the country, the Sunni militants have also found allies among other jihadist groups, as well as ordinary Iraqi Sunnis who have felt marginalized by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
Earlier Saturday, a high-ranking Western diplomat in Baghdad described the Islamic State as well-trained, hard-core terrorists.
It’s a real world-class terrorist organization, and it’s an army, said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with embassy protocol. They have to be isolated, squeezed off, and captured or killed.
The Islamic State seeks to impose an extremist interpretation of Islamic law and has vowed to destroy the Iraqi government, as well as Shiite holy sites. An official in the prime minister’s office said Saturday night that the government had no official reaction. As of yet, we haven’t confirmed that that is, in fact, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said the official, Ali Malawi.
Last month, the Islamic State published photos purportedly documenting the gruesome execution of dozens of Iraqi Shiite soldiers and claimed to have executed 1,700. Human Rights Watch said last month that the Sunni militants had executed at least 160 people in the northern city of Tikrit alone.
In 2011, the State Department identified Baghdadi as the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and named him a specially designated global terrorist. The U.S. government has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his whereabouts.
In the video, the man purported to be Baghdadi addresses rows of ordinary-looking men and boys from a podium in Mosul’s Great Mosque.
Ramadan, which entered its seventh day on Saturday, is the month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims believe God delivered the Quran to the prophet Muhammad.
In the video, Baghdadi thanks God for the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate.
I do not promise you what the kings and rulers promise their subjects and followers – luxury and security and leisure, he tells the men gathered before him. But I promise what God promises those who believe in him. Believers who obey God can expect an afterlife in heaven, he says.