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Islamic State leader Baghdadi appears on video for first time in five years

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be alive despite repeated reports of his demise
Baghdadi last appeared in a video in 2014 when he gave a sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul (Twitter)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group, has appeared in his first video in five years, despite past widespread reports of his death.

Baghdadi, who has not been pictured since giving a sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul in 2014, featured in a video that was published on Monday by IS's Al-Furqan media channel.

In the video, which MEE could not independently verify, Baghdadi appears to have gained weight and dyed his beard with henna.

It is unclear when the video was filmed, but Baghdadi referred in the past tense to the months-long fight for Baghouz, IS's final bastion in eastern Syria. He also commented on recent events, including the elections in Israel and the unrest in Algeria.  

"The battle for Baghouz is over," he said, sitting cross-legged on a cushion and addressing three men whose faces have been blurred.

IS, which previously held vast swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, was finally kicked out of Baghouz by Kurdish-led forces at the end of March.

In a final segment that shows footage of the militants who killed 253 people on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka - rather than Baghdadi's face - the IS leader says the attacks were "vengeance" by the bombers "for their brothers in Baghouz".

US vows 'enduring defeat'

There have been several conflicting reports about Baghdadi's health and whereabouts over the past five years. The IS leader has also been reported as having been killed numerous times.

In 2017, for example, Russia said it was investigating whether one of its air strikes on Raqqa, the militant group's former stronghold, had killed him.

A State Department spokesperson said the US could not verify the video's authenticity, but said government analysts were reviewing the recording, according to AFP.

"We will defer to the intelligence community to confirm its authenticity," the spokesperson said.

The US-led coalition against the group will fight across the world to "ensure an enduring defeat" of IS and "any leaders who remain", the spokesperson added.

"ISIS's territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria was a crushing strategic and psychological blow as ISIS saw its so-called caliphate crumble, its leaders killed or flee the battlefield, and its savagery exposed," he said, referring to IS by a different acronym. 

It is unclear whether Baghdadi’s appearance in the video may affect US plans to pull American troops out of Syria, a move that was first announced late last year.

At the time, Donald Trump said there was no reason to keep US forces in the war-torn country because IS had been defeated.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency," the US president tweeted on 19 December.

US allies and even members of Trump’s own administration raised concerns following the announcement, saying Washington was abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria who have been credited with leading the fight against IS there.

The administration has since tempered its plans for an immediate withdrawal, saying hundreds of US troops would remain in Syria and vowing to continue the fight against IS.