The self-declared leader of all Muslims worldwide made a surprise appearance July 4 at a mosque in Mosul—the key trophy of last month’s military incursion into Iraq by his group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appeared in public at Mosul’s historic Al Nuri Mosque in the central part of the city, where he delivered a sermon that called for the imposition of harsh Sharia law through force.
"There is no reason to doubt that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi presided over prayers in Mosul last Friday," a U.S. official confirmed.
The official said the public appearance was the next logical step after ISIL’s late June declaration of the "so called caliphate."
"That said, the broader appeal of Baghdadi’s message to Sunni communities in Iraq and elsewhere is still very much in question," the official told the Washington Free Beacon.
During a 20-minute sermon, Baghdadi, wearing what appears to be an expensive watch, said Islamic rule could only be reached through the use of military force, and he referred to the ISIL declaration last month of the Islamic caliphate, or political entity, with himself as caliph. Additionally, he called on all Muslims to obey him as the ultimate Muslim leader.
Baghdadi said imposing sharia law and applying Islamic penalties "can only be achieved by force and authority."
A video of the speech was produced by ISIL’s official media unit and Baghdadi was identified as "Caliph Ibrahim, commander of the faithful in the Islamic State."
The video was promoted by an official ISIL Twitter account.
U.S. officials said the secrecy surrounding Baghdadi’s identity until the sermon was part of a policy adopted by leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIL, after its first leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed in 2006 shortly after a video of him had appeared publicly.
So far, ISIL propagandists have not discussed concerns about Baghdadi’s safety or whether he is a target for assassination. Other ISIL members had reported earlier on social media that Baghdadi would appear in a video around the start of Ramadan, which began June 28.
Baghdadi’s appearance sparked controversy among jihadist supporters and critics on social media platforms. ISIL supporters offered effusive praise for the leader, noting his calm demeanor and articulate speaking abilities.
Critics dismissed Baghdadi and raised doubts about whether he actually appeared at the mosque or whether it was an imposter. Others critical of ISIL dismissed Baghdadi as lacking charisma.
The diverse views reflect differences between ISIL and the central al Qaeda organization, as well as opposition from Muslims in general, many of whom oppose the notion of being represented by a terrorist group leader.
Last week, the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars issued a statement dismissing ISIL’s declaration of the Islamic caliphate as "invalid" and lacking "legitimate and realistic criteria."
U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports said Baghdadi’s brazen appearance in Mosul was unusual and likely designed to counter reports that he had been injured by counterattacking Iraqi military forces.
Until Friday’s speech, Baghdadi’s public persona was so secret he was dubbed the "invisible sheik." Previously, only two photos of Baghdadi were available to Western security agencies.
Baghdadi is considered a "high-value target" for U.S. intelligence agencies and military forces. An intelligence source said he has been placed on a secret U.S. "kill list" of terrorists targeted for assassination.
U.S. intelligence agencies missed an opportunity to remove Baghdadi from the battlefield along with several senior ISIL commanders during the visit to Mosul. U.S. surveillance drones have been conducting missions over Iraq since last month, and armed drones are said to be stationed within the region.
However, senior Pentagon officials have said current military operations in Iraq for the several hundred U.S. troops are limited to survey teams assessing the security in the country and the capabilities of Iraqi forces.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that the military is planning for future attacks against "high value targets" in Iraq if the president approves a wider military role for U.S. forces there.
Dempsey told reporters July 3 that ISIL currently is a regional threat that "over time, could become a trans regional and global threat."
A major U.S. concern is said to be an ISIL attack on Jordan, which shares borders with both Syria and Iraq that would be similar to the strike against Iraq.
U.S. officials also said there are disturbing signs ISIL is considering terror attacks outside the region, including against the United States.
A prominent online jihadist who identifies himself as Gharib al Ikhwan on June 30 tweeted a link to a report headlined, "Beware Obama, [Baghdadi] is the grandson of Muhammad" that urged the ISIL leader to order a September 11-type attack on the United States with the goal of causing the economic collapse of the country.
In Mosul, ISIL has begun issuing passports for its so-called Islamic State, as the caliphate is called.
The Islamic caliphate concept began in the 600s as the political entity led by successors to Islam’s founder Mohammad. The most recent caliphate was the Ottoman Empire that was disbanded in 1924.
ISIL broke away from al Qaeda last year and emerged as an ultra-violent Islamist terror group operating in Syria.
Under Obama administration counterterrorism policies, Syria was off limits to U.S. intelligence or special operations strikes, allowing the war-torn country to become a major safe haven.
ISIL conducted a lightning attack against Iraq beginning in early June that enlisted a number of former military leaders and soldiers who were part of the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Terrorism analysts say Baghdadi’s surfacing is a sign of ISIL’s growing regional power.
The propaganda use of leadership appearances by al Qaeda and associated groups is a recurring theme among terrorists, said Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism expert and professor at the Marine Corps University at Quantico, Va.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was filmed firing an AK-47 rifle as a way to build his credibility.
"The fact that Baghdadi responded so quickly to rumors he was wounded is a sign of his and ISIL’s strength," Gorka said.
"The man masterminding the jihadi blitzkrieg in Iraq is also managing to maintain his view that this is a holy war aimed at establishing a Sunni theocracy," Gorka added, noting that the message was reinforced "from the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul."
Thomas Joscelyn, a counterterrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the reclusive Baghdadi appeared in Mosul to further encourage ISIL supporters to swear allegiance to him and his state.
"Thus far, the Islamic State's declared caliphate has not gone over well in the jihadist community," Joscelyn said. "Highly influential jihadist ideologues have rejected the Islamic State's declaration."
Additionally, ISIL has tried unsuccessfully to win over terror groups linked to the central al Qaeda organization.
"However, no official branch of al Qaeda has defected," he said. "In order for Baghdadi and the Islamic State to win over more jihadist organizations, they are going to have to at least maintain their military gains. If their military offensive falters, or they lose ground, then it will convince even more people that the caliphate declaration was in haste and not worthy of support."
Details of Baghdadi’s Mosul visit were published in the British Arabic-language newspaper al-Arabi al-Jadid. The daily newspaper reported from Mosul on Saturday that Baghdadi arrived in the city from his base in Dayr al Zur, in eastern Syria, according to a member of the Mosul ulema council, a religious body, who disclosed the details.
Baghdadi arrived in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles carrying armed ISIL fighters dressed in black. The vehicle tags bore the symbol of ISIL, the report said.
The ISIL security forces searched the area around and inside the mosque prior to Baghdadi’s arrival—an indication the terrorist leader is aware he is a target.
A camera crew from Syria also was part of the ISIL group that videotaped the speech.
Before the Friday sermon, ISIL officials in Mosul asked the mosque’s imam for permission for Baghdadi to give the sermon solely for that day.
Those attending the sermon, said to number in the dozens, did not know Baghdadi was to be the speaker until he revealed himself from within a group of ISIL commanders at the mosque.
In addition to revealing himself and declaring himself the caliph, Baghdadi’s sermon was intended to counter Iraqi government reports that he had been killed in a clash with security forces or that he had been evacuated to Syria.
Baghdadi left Mosul a few hours after the sermon.
The BBC Online reported that until Baghdadi’s appearance in Mosul, his appearances were limited and he often spoke to his own commanders while wearing a mask. The practice earned him the nickname "invisible sheik."
The ISIL is gaining strength rapidly as a result of its seizures of Iraqi military equipment and the release of hundreds of supporters who had been imprisoned in areas of central Iraq.
Baghdadi, a nom de guerre, is believed to have been born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971, and was a cleric at a mosque in that city around the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. His jihadist roots were traced to the four years Baghdadi spent as a prisoner at U.S. Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
Baghdadi is regarded as a hardened battlefield commander known for being highly organized and ruthless.