IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State on Saturday released a video of what it said was its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, directing Friday prayers in one of Mosul’s oldest mosques, an event that not only displayed the group’s military control over Iraq’s second largest city but also served as a bold assertion of religious authority.
In the video, al-Baghdadi is referred to as the Caliph Ibrahim, a reference to the Islamic caliphate that the group announced a week ago in the area it controls in Syria and Iraq and to which, it claims, all Muslims owe their allegiance.
“God gave your mujahedeen brothers victory after long years of jihad and patience … so they declared the caliphate and placed the caliph in charge,” al-Baghdadi said. “This is a duty on Muslims that has been lost for centuries.”
A resident of Mosul reached by phone said that al-Baghdadi and his entourage arrived at the Great Nurridin Mosque, which dates to 1142 A.D., without advance notice and that his security detail occupied the first row of worshipers, apparently wearing explosive vests. The resident, who used to work at the mosque but cannot be otherwise identified for security reasons, said the group displayed the flag of the Islamic State.
In an apparent security precaution, cell phone service throughout the city was cut off for several hours Friday afternoon, other residents reported.
The appearance of al-Baghdadi at such a public gathering underscored the transition that the Islamic State, once a shadowy terrorist group most recently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is making to assert itself as a sovereign entity. Before the release of the video, the only known images of al-Baghdadi were grainy photos released by the Iraqi government or displayed on a U.S. wanted poster offering a $10 million reward for his capture.
The video, however, was an indication that al-Baghdadi’s days in the shadows are over. It was shot in high definition, making it seemingly easy for U.S. authorities to verify that he is the man they called Abu Dua on his wanted poster and whose “biometric” data presumably was collected during the five years or so when he was a prisoner at the U.S. military’s Camp Bucca detention center in Iraq.
U.S. officials offered no comment.
Charles Lister, an expert on Iraqi and Syrian extremist groups at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, said the appearance was filled with historical references and was an important assertion of authority.
“That Baghdadi has chosen this time — the first Friday after his declaration of the caliphate, during Ramadan, and in Mosul’s Great Mosque — is, of course, very symbolic,” Lister said. Al-Baghdadi’s dress — he was dressed in black and wore a black turban — “very closely replicates that of the Abbasid caliphs,” Lister said, giving him “at least to his support base, an image of understated authority.”
The Abbasid caliphs ruled an area that stretched from present-day Iran to Libya from the eightth century to the 12th century. The various Abbasid capitals over the years included not just Baghdad, but also Samarra, the Iraqi city where Baghdadi was born in 1971, and Raqqa, the Syrian city that until the fall of Mosul June 10 was believed to be the Islamic State’s administrative headquarters.
Lister said it would be hard to overstate the importance of al-Baghdadi’s appearance in jihadist circles. “Put simply, one of the most wanted men on earth was able to travel into central Mosul and give a 30-minute sermon in the most venerated mosque in the largest city under control of the most notorious jihadist group of our time,” he said.
By appearing publicly as he did, Lister said, al-Baghdadi was likely hoping to win “more expansive support from within the world’s community of jihadist ideologues and conservative Salafist clerics.”
“Putting a face to a name gives the Islamic State a far improved chance of acquiring the pledges of allegiance that it now so desperately seeks,” he said.
In keeping with that interpretation, the Islamic State now refers to al-Baghdadi by his real name, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, or Caliph Ibrahim, an apparent effort to overcome initial skepticism expressed by mainstream Sunni Muslim scholars, who doubted the validity of the newly declared caliphate, in part, because al-Baghdadi had declared himself the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims without ever appearing in public.
Al-Baghdadi has been widely reported by the Iraqi media to hold a doctorate in Islamic law from Baghdad University and is often referred as a “doctor” by supporters. He was said to be a preacher in small conservative mosques in Baghdad and Samarra prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Caliph Ibrahim, as he was introduced, spoke from the pulpit, or minbar, of the Nurridin Mosque _ a famously ornate mosque that holds significant historical importance to Sunni Muslims. It is famed for its leaning minaret and was once visited by Ibn Battuta, a famed 14th-century explorer from North Africa who over a period of 30 years is said to have visited all of the Muslim world, from Africa to Asia.
Al-Baghdadi’s sermon focused on the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the role of both internal and external jihad for Muslims during this period.
But al-Baghdadi also directly addressed his position as caliph — which historically would make him the leader of all Muslims, but for which he has only narrow acceptance among adherents of Islam’s most militant strain, known as Salafi jihadism. That strain calls for a return to a society that closely follows the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest companions in the seventh century.
The video catches al-Baghdadi moving slowly to the minbar, possibly encumbered by body armor or a suicide explosive belt, which he and other Islamic State leaders are widely said to wear at all times to prevent capture. He can be seen cleaning his mouth with a miswak, a small piece of wood said to be preferred by Mohammed for dental care, before be began his speech, which was in eloquent classical Arabic favored by religious leaders and rarely heard outside of public speaking by the highly educated.
With the establishment of a caliphate under his leadership, the Islamic world will return to “dignity, might, rights and leadership,” he said. “I am the wali (leader) who presides over you, though I am not the best of you, so if you see that I am right, assist me.”
But in an effort to perhaps appease Muslims and scholars from schools of thought that are deeply uncomfortable with just about every aspect of his group’s philosophy of Takfirism, or the violent excommunication of Muslims considered improperly devout or misguided, he attempted to offer some willingness to talk, assuming such discussion is followed by obedience.
“If you see that I am wrong, advise me and put me on the right track, and obey me as long as I obey God in you,” he said.
In an additional attempt to justify both the timing of declaring an Islamic caliphate, as well as citing religious precedent for his leadership of it, al-Baghdadi used the notion of a defensive jihad to liberate occupied Muslim lands as a qualification for his claim to be the “prince of the faithful.” Mosul’s previous government, he said, was doubly heretical, dominated by Shiite Muslims, whom his group rejects, and who came to power under a parliamentary system that also runs counter to Islamic law.
His declaration that the Muslim duty to declare a caliphate “had been lost for centuries” was an open criticism of al-Qaida and the conservatives who support it, who while openly supporting the idea of a caliphate, had said it could not be established until Western-backed governments had been defeated and Muslims unused to the idea of religious rule had been properly prepared.
Al-Qaida’s leadership and the previously powerful Jihadi Salafi establishment has yet to respond to the Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate or al-Baghdadi’s Ramadan message issued Tuesday in which he called upon all Muslims to travel to the new state, which spans large parts of Iraq and Syria.
Supporters of al-Baghdadi have been quick to mock al-Qaida’s older leadership. One Islamic State supporter said on Twitter that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has never liberated a major Muslim city though jihad, let alone led prayer in public. An estimated 12 million people now live in areas under the Islamic State’s control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which the Islamic State has said no longer exists.
The Mosul resident and former Narrudin Mosque worker said that most of the city’s clerics have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and that the Islamic State now dictates the content of Friday sermons.