“You hear rumors, like the leader [of ISIS] is in Turkey. What the heck? Why would he be in Turkey if he called everyone to the Islamic State, you know? What kind of ruler is ruling his people outside of his country? And then we heard rumors that he’s not there. We heard rumors that he was sick, basically that he was not in power at all. We didn’t even know what to expect. Is this guy even legit? Like did he just record himself once and then he just disappeared? We don’t know.”
These are the words of Hoda Muthana, an American-born ISIS wife who traveled from Alabama to Syria to live under the group in 2014, ultimately spending 5 years living under ISIS rule. She spoke in April to ICSVE in researchers in Camp Roj, Syria, where she is being detained as a former ISIS bride by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Despite her wondering, along with many others in the world, about his whereabouts, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi resurfaced last week in an ISIS-released video titled “In the Hospitality of the Emir of the Believers.” In the 18-minute video, Baghdadi is featured seated alongside three other presumably ISIS members, whose faces are blurred. Although the video remains yet to be authenticated, this would be his second public appearance since his well-known speech from the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul in summer 2014. The last voice recording of him emerged almost a year after the Iraqi government announced the defeat of ISIS in Iraq.
In what appears to be an April-dated video recording, Baghdadi addressed the future of the group’s global aspirations. Baghdadi’s rhetoric was filled with black-and-white interpretations about how ISIS views the world, namely the Islamist movement he leads and the rest of the world. He repeatedly referred to “crusaders” (i.e. the West) and Muslims locked in a ceaseless battle to the end times, with Allah ultimately rewarding the “true” believers – defined by ISIS as true due to their allegiance to the group while others are grouped outside of the “nation of Islam.”
In the video, the reclusive Baghdadi paid tribute to the leaders who had served and died on behalf of the Islamic State while also setting out a new agenda for the organization as it transitions beyond its losses in Syria and Iraq to what he is promoting as the more global nature of the ISIS movement. Baghdadi proudly acknowledged new oaths of allegiance from Mali, Burkina Faso, and parts of Afghanistan and Iran (Khorasan, as he puts it) and Sri Lanka. He also spoke about the grievous loss of Sham, referencing revenge attacks that the group has also been promoting in recent videos, respectively, “May Allah reward the brothers in all the Wilayat [provinces] for their unified and blessed foray, revenging their brothers in Sham [Levant], the operations of which reached a number of 92 operations in eight countries.” He explicitly referenced ISIS attacks in Libya and Saudi Arabia, the group’s first-ever attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, perhaps most chillingly, the bombings in Sri Lanka last month as revenge attacks for the deaths of ISIS fighters in Baghouz.
Baghdadi’s exhortation to the faithful is to achieve “victory or paradise” – neither lesser than the other, in his view – with dying in battles against the “crusaders” clearly defined by their leader as Islamic “martyrdom” with all of its rewards. Baghdadi further states, “Allah the Almighty ordered us to commit jihad and did not order us to win,” thus allowing for the temporary setback of the loss of his Caliphate and for deaths in battles as well. He is also using Salafi terminologies, such as taghut, wilayat, monotheists, crusaders, caravan, and foray, and referring to certain countries using their ancient names (e.g. Khorasan) to invoke the glory of the historical Islamic State.
Baghdadi references his fighters as steadfast whereas he refers to the battle of attrition against the West and enemies of Islam as a lengthy one – calling it an “exhaustion” battle. As one American veteran who served in Afghanistan notes, it’s demoralizing to see this kind of strategy work after so many Americans and Afghans lost their lives fighting the Taliban (who followed a similar strategy of attrition) and the civilians abandoned to such groups. Many American veterans who fought in Iraq felt similarly when ISIS retook Fallujah after they had fought and lost comrades in arms to previously free it from al-Qaeda’s grip.
Yet, Baghdadi praises his men for being steadfast. While it is true that some of ISIS’ battle-hardened and desperate members made a last stand in its final enclave in Baghouz, thousands of others surrendered in the last days. Baghdadi also states, “Praise be to Allah that your brothers the mujahideen in the State of Islam starting with the battle of Baiji [a town in Saladin province in Iraq], Mosul, Sart, and eventually Baghouz, they neither wavered nor gave up a land to the unbelievers except on their dead bodies and fragments,” though the truth is that thousands of his disillusioned fighters walked out of Baghouz, in particular, surrendering readily to the so-called “enemies of Islam.”
ICSVE researchers have had the opportunity to interview scores of those ISIS fighters and family members who survived in the group until the bitter end, in some cases interviewing them only days after they had surrendered. They came out of the battle achieving neither victory nor paradise. They struggled to understand why Baghdadi and his leadership abandoned the struggle when they needed them most. Many told us that they wondered about their absent leader, Baghdadi, and about the entire ISIS leadership’s goals and integrity.
Many who came out of Baghouz told us about rumors that they believed were circulated by the ISIS leaders to keep them from surrendering, and in the case of fighters to boost their will to fight. For instance, Abdullah Rhmana, an ISIS fighter of Moroccan descent from the Netherlands, interviewed by ICSVE researchers this March in Rojava, Syria, states, “The rumors stopped me from leaving ISIS. [We heard that in] escaping that the smuggler would surrender you. [There were also] rumors that the Peshmerga will sell our women into Iran. [There were] rumors that victory can still be had. In Hajin [we heard of] negotiations with the coalition [to move or to let us go free.]”
ISIS circulated many other similar rumors as well. For instance, several ISIS fighters we interviewed in Rojava, Syria, told us that they heard that the ISIS women would be raped by the Kurds, Assad’s forces, the Iraqis, and even the Americans; that the women would be sold into Iran; that none of the foreign fighters would be allowed to surrender and return to their home countries; and that they would fall into the hands of the Iraqis or Syrians and be tortured or receive death sentences. These individuals stated that such rumors prevented them from surrendering. Others stated to us that some rumors created kept their hopes alive. For instance, some heard of a deal that would allow the transfer of ISIS members to either Iraq or the desert, which would also render them free, or to perhaps to be used by the Americans to fight Iran. For many this kept the grim perspective of prison at bay – and hope alive. In fact, in the past, ISIS members had been allowed by Assad in Damascus and Aleppo and by the Kurds in Raqqa to board buses and travel to safety, and the SDF told ICSVE researchers that the ISIS leadership tried to broker a deal that they would be bussed from Hajin into Turkey. No such deal materialized, however.
Watch Hoda Muthana tell her story:
As time went on and most ISIS members were starving and suffering from the bombings –witnessing each other and those they loved be killed and die – they realized that their ISIS leaders had at best offered false hope, and at worst lied to them, and that they had been sold out. For many foreign fighters and their family members who had abandoned their often-privileged lives to join ISIS, it was not until they were starving and dying and seeing that their ISIS leaders did not suffer their same fates that this realization dawned.
Ahmed Assad, an Australian who denies ever being an ISIS member, although both of his sons served the group, surrendered from Baghouz and spoke to ICSVE researchers in March. He vividly recounts the harsh conditions in Sousa, in one of the ISIS’ last strongholds. “In Sousa, I asked if this is for sale?” he states, and was told, “There is no food. There is only [food] for the Iraqis.” Confused by the answer he received, Ahmed asked, “Aren’t we all brothers?” and was told “No, [it’s] only for the Iraqi brothers.”
“You’d see Iraqis selling food at unbelievable prices. Iraqis kids getting milk and food, others dying. Foreign fighters getting nothing,” Ahmed explains.
Yagom Reidygk (Shamima Begum’s husband) from the Netherlands, speaking to ICSVE researchers in April, recalls the same, namely, “For them [the Iraqis], there was no siege. They had stocked up on everything. If you were Iraqi and had connections, you were living a good life. The rest of us were starving or eating grass. We ate grass and the by-product from making wheat – it’s cow food. We survived off of that.”
Yagom’s 4-year-old daughter starved to death during this time period. “She became a skeleton. She had no nappies and got an infection. It was very difficult. One day she fell asleep and didn’t wake up,” he explains.
Yagom also stated that the reports of getting sold were not just rumors and that it was the ISIS leaders who sold their own people out when the Caliphate in Iraq fell. According to Yagom, the Iraqi ISIS leaders sold their foreign fighter wives to the Iraqi militias in exchange for a free passage that would allow them to escape into Syria when ISIS fell to the Iraqi army and militias. “People got sold in Mosul and Talafa. There are still European women in Iran. Dawlah [ISIS] sold women,” Yagom explains. When asked about the sources of his information, he states, “The people who were there and escaped went through the desert drinking their own piss. They said what actually went down. The Iraqis [ISIS leaders] made a deal with the Hashd for their safe passage, to give up the immigrants. [The Hashd al- Shaabi] sold them as slaves.” A similar story was also conveyed by Abu Obeida, an ISIS high-ranking ideologue and recruiter from Turkey interviewed by ICSVE researchers in Rojava in March. He stated he knew from phone calls he had received from escaped Turks inside ISIS whose wives were sold to the Hashd by the Iraqi ISIS leaders.
In Syria, not only Baghdadi but also the Iraqi leaders began to disappear as the SDF and coalition forces closed in on Baghouz. Australian Ahmed Assad claims the Iraqi ISIS leaders were living well, while the foreign fighters and their families who had served them were dying around them. He states that the ISIS Iraqi leaders prevented the foreign fighters from surrendering by spreading rumors and failing to notify them on time about safe passages for civilians to leave. Yet, knowing the truth, they one-by-one escaped the tightening noose surrounding ISIS’ last stronghold. He states, “You see Iraqis going [out] in their [Kia] trucks. You have no idea where. [They] pack their stuff and leave. All of a sudden you see the Iraqis are gone. Where are they going? I have no idea.”
Foreign fighters and their family members who stood with Baghdadi up to the end expressed having had doubts about the Caliphate and its brutal practices before it began to crumble in front of them. As a result, many started doubting the ISIS leadership as an egalitarian Islamic ideal it tried to portray itself as. In reality, as they watched their leaders save only themselves, they understood without any more doubts that the ISIS leaders were composed of power-thirsty and corrupt individuals, primarily led by local Syrians and Iraqis, and that the foreign fighters who had been so naïve, hopeful, and faithful in coming to serve, were in reality just cannon fodder for them.
Hoda Muthana, who told ICSVE researchers in April that she has now woken up from her “brainwashed” state of mind, asked in bewildered puzzlement, “I can’t figure out their motive. What’s the point of all this? I don’t know. I don’t understand them calling basically the whole world to come and migrate and sacrifice everything for what seemed like peaceful Islamic state, which it was not.”
Rumors of Baghdadi’s death have persisted for months. In addition, as described above, many knew or believed that their ideological leader had abandoned their cause. The recent video of Baghdadi serves to rally the forces and turn the ISIS Caliphate into a global movement of violence and destruction, a ceaseless war of attrition. In this regard, we must quickly and powerfully answer them back in a plethora of counter messages designed just as cleverly and with the same emotional valence to diminish the global support Baghdadi hopes for. Baghdadi may have re-emerged from the shadows, but also being brought to light are the true experiences of ISIS insiders who belie his words and tell the truth about him and his so called new Islamic movement.