The return of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the danger of over-analysis

He’s back!!!! Just when you thought – or at least when the US President thought (hey, at least he didn’t say, er I mean tweet, ‘Mission Accomplished!!’) – that Islamic State (IS) was yesterday’ problem, lo and behold a video appears in which the leader of the terrorist group and ex-‘Caliph’ (of a pretend ‘Caliphate’) seems very much alive and well. Sure he has gained a little weight (who doesn’t in their later years?) and his beard is, um, a little wonky (what is with that colour scheme?? I get that henna is popular with some in the Middle East but should he have not at least dyed ALL of it?? He looks like he is a member of the 1980’s pop band Tommy and the Tutones (get it, ‘two tones’??). But it is him. He ain’t dead.

Whenever the leader of a major terrorist group resurfaces the world of terrorist analysts goes ape. Is the video real? Is it fake? Where is he? Why did he appear now? What does it mean? Should I batten down the hatches? Are we doomed?

When Usama bin Laden used to issue his video statements there was a whole industry of analysts looking at the background and trying to determine where he was. “Hmm, that granite band in the rock over his left shoulder is only found in one outcrop just outside of Abbotabad” or something like that. Trust me, I was there when these debates were being held.

So what does all this mean now that Al Baghdadi has pulled a Mark Twain (the rumours of his death, supposedly at the hands (or missiles) of the Russians were definitely exaggerated)? What does this mean???

Everything. And nothing.

His video is clearly an attempt to show the world he is still here and to rally his followers that he is still in some kind of control. Does it presage more terrorist attacks? Yes and no. More terrorist attacks are coming regardless of this video. Sorry.

It also afforded him the opportunity to explain why the ‘Caliphate’, which was supposed to last until the end of time, lasted a few years. The end did not bring about ‘Armageddon’: it ended with a whimper, not a bang. But that is ok as it was all part of the original plan – apparently. Okiedokie then. Must be nice to be able to reverse history like that. Any time something does not go according to plan just say that this IS the plan. Convenient.

I have seen, read and listened to more jihadi messages over the past 20 years to have become a little jaded. I see little use in analysing these things to death. Having said that I have read some very good pieces, especially by Charles Lister and Colin P. Clarke (have a look at them). So I don’t want to discourage debate on on this but I do think sometimes we over-analyse issues, in part to feed the media beast.

Me, I guess I am part of that too. After all this blog is about what Al Baghdadi’s video means. Maybe I should not have written it. Sorry. My bad.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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